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Inside HR Tech Column

Fixing a Broken Process

Reference checking has long been a practice in need of repair, but that's beginning to change with the help of some practical new tools.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013
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The smartest application of HR technology just might be in improving and tapping traditional HR processes for their hidden value. See, for instance, the way technology can help move the candidate-reference-checking process from administrative headache to a rich source of talent information.

A few weeks back, a casual friend of mine dropped me a note to say, "I hope you don’t mind, but I used you as a reference for an IT director job I applied for. Let me know if they call you, OK? I REALLY appreciate you putting in a good word. Thanks!"

My first reaction was, frankly, I hope they don't call.

Between the awkwardness of talking to a complete stranger about someone her or she barely knows (and I don’t know all that much better), the unlikelihood that I would even answer my cell phone for an unscheduled call coming from an unfamiliar number, and coupled with my reluctance to get personally involved in a situation in which I would be faced with having to balance answering honestly with not wanting to really adversely impact my friend’s prospects, I wanted to write him back and ask, "Can’t you find someone else?"

I think that is, all too often, the reaction of the people who are tapped as prospective candidate references – a reaction that, all too often, negatively affects the typical candidate-reference-checking process. In the traditional reference-checking process, with an employer representative (often a recruiting administrator and not the actual recruiter and almost never the hiring manager) phoning the candidate’s references and running through a fairly generic set of questions and hoping to take accurate and thorough notes, (probably something that's impossible once you’ve hit the 15th call of the afternoon), getting any value beyond "The references all said he/she was a nice person to work with" is a challenge. Even a named reference who for some reason would like to provide a negative or even a lukewarm candidate reference will often gloss over any candidate deficiencies.

That is kind of a shame and a missed opportunity for organizations. Sure, resumes or LinkedIn profiles can be pretty accurate measures of work experience and job skills, application assessments can screen for basic competency and a confident and practiced candidate can say all the right things in an interview setting.

But the potential insights that can be gathered about a candidates from people they have worked with in the past should be some of the most valuable information a recruiter could ask for and ought to be factored into the screening process and the hiring decision.

Thankfully, just as technology has improved and enhanced many other elements of the talent-management process, new cloud-based and intelligent software is being applied to candidate reference checking to unlock value and help lead to better hiring decisions.

I recently met with the folks at Chequed.com (which, to be fair, isn't the only player in the automated and technology-augmented reference-checking market). They shared with me some really interesting statistics about how companies that are applying technology to the time-honored and typically manual and labor-intensive process of reference checking are both improving the process itself and positively impacting outcomes.

For example, in Chequed’s automated process, more than 80 percent of supplied references complete the online responses within 48 hours. And the automated process reduces the time (and money) spent by internal recruiting staff significantly, taking a series of phone calls and verbal interviews and converting them to a series of automated emails and online response forms (which more than 75 percent of references prefer to a phone-based process).

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Finally, the automated process tends to result in more "honest" responses from the candidate references. According to Chequed, as many as 15 percent of the returned responses have caused hiring managers to re-think their hiring decisions -- a figure that, at least anecdotally, is much higher than most companies experience with traditional reference checking. It could be that, in some ways, references feel more comfortable providing unvarnished feedback about a candidate in an online process than they would be in an actual conversation with a company recruiter. Either way, the response rates, process speed and quality of the supplied information all improve as a result of the technology.

Oh, and there's one more benefit: In the online process, once references complete the candidate feedback portion of the interaction, they can be invited to provide their own contact information to opt-in to the company recruiting mailing list or talent network (as many as 40 percent reportedly do so), as they often have the right elements of experience and backgrounds that companies are looking for. References can be a fantastic source for future company opportunities, but collecting their information and engaging with them has always been a challenge. Here, automation provides a nice ancillary benefit and opportunity for the organization.

This piece is not meant to come off as a pitch for Chequed or any of the other providers of automated candidate-reference-checking tools, but rather to illustrate -- once again -- how and where HR technology can and is making an impact in organizations, improving traditional HR processes, and leading to better talent decisions and outcomes. And since these solutions are delivered in the cloud, companies of all sizes can take advantage of the opportunities they present.

Steve Boese is a co-chair of HRE's HR Technology® Conference and a technology editor for LRP Publications. He also writes an HR blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at sboese@lrp.com.

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