Tim Sackett’s HR 101: Dirty Little Secret No. 26 – Secondary References

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If you clicked over to read Dirty Little Secret No. 26 and you’re looking for numbers 1–25, hold tight, I haven’t written those yet.

I just like picking random numbers for posts because they work, and I believe HR has at least 26 Dirty Little Secrets. This is just one.

I’m not really ranking them. N0. 26 could be as bad or worse than No. 1. I’ll let you decide when they’re all done.

HR gives references out all the time

So, what is HR’s Dirty Little Secret No. 26?

We check secondary references, without you knowing, all the time!

First, let me give you the line that 100 percent of all HR Pros will give to you and all employees all the time. “We do not give references. We will only give you employment verification, which includes dates of employment. Thank you.”

You’ve heard that, right?

One of HR’s dirty little secrets is that we give out references all the time! Especially, if you’re a terrible employee! We just don’t do it publicly.

Is this bad advice, or what?

The chairman of JetBlue Airlines, Joel Peterson, wrote a blog post on LinkedIn (first, I doubt highly he wrote it, but his PR team did a nice job with the series) titled Top 10 Hiring Mistakes, #5 Lazy Reference Checking, where he gives advice about checking secondary references. Secondary references are those references that a candidate didn’t give you, but that you have through your own connections.

His advice was awful, but he’s a public figure and he had to give it. He said you should always let the candidate know you’ll be checking secondary references so they can reach out and let those people know.

First, thanks for the tip Joel, but that never happens. Never. Plus, why would I want to give away the one unfiltered piece of the selection process I can get? You don’t!

Here’s the reality: If you interview for a position, you should assume that someone in the organization is checking secondary references behind your back.

It’s easy to do. I call up a buddy who works at your current, or old organization, we talk, catch up on our favorite teams, crazy employees we both know, etc. Then, she let’s me know if you’re a train wreck or not.

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Most secondary references are positive

Of course, she also first says, “Tim, you know we can’t give references.” Then she says, “Off the record, your candidate is a psychopath!” End of secondary reference.

You think I’m joking? It happens just like that, and it happens every single day.

Don’t get me wrong; most of the time, the secondary reference actually comes back positive. You get more of an unfiltered reference than you get by checking the “given references” a candidate provides to you as part of your process.

Given references are completely worthless. I don’t even waste my time checking given references. If someone can’t find three people who think they walk on water, they’ve got bigger problems.

If you’re going to do “given references” because you can’t talk the old white guys in your leadership out of it, because it makes them feel all warm, fuzzy and comfortable, at least talk them into automating this process.

Automating the reference process

Chequed is a company that does it better than anyone, and it will totally take this worthless activity off your back. Plus, Chequed has shown that people who fill out an automated reference check, even a given reference, will be more honest about a person’s actual strengths and weaknesses. I’m a fan of their science. (FYI – they didn’t pay to say that, although they should!)

I won’t ask what HR Pros think about this, because they’ll mostly lie and say they don’t do this. That’s why it’s my HR’s Dirty Little Secret No. 26.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.

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3 Comments on “Tim Sackett’s HR 101: Dirty Little Secret No. 26 – Secondary References

  1. I disagree very strongly that given references are useless. A *good* reference auditor can get the good, the bad, and the ugly out of a given reference. I’ve been doing it for decades. You just need to know the right questions to ask and how to read between the lines — and magnify the weaknesses given by a factor of ten. I have, on several occasions, recommended against hiring based on the references. I have also been able to address specific concerns raised during the interview process to get at whether our concern was valid. If you know what you’re doing, given references are very valuable. So are secondary references, but even given references don’t think the candidate “walks on water” because no one does. If you find such references “useless,” you are probably not doing them right.

  2. @marthab … I think your point is spot on except that it assumes most people can do it right (or WILL). You are correct that I highly skilled and experienced reference checking can get good information occasionally. The problem is that this process doesn’t scale as more people are hired and more managers are tasked with reference checking. Like applicant tracking, a single individual could manage the process quite effectively on a spreadsheet or a stack of folders, but as hiring becomes more frequent with more individuals involved, technology (combined with behavioral science in the case of reference checking) can drive a far more scalable and consistent process yielding overall better hires (and reducing the number of bad hires).

  3. Tim…it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.

    Can you imagine what our secondary references would say about us?

    The secret to any reference is to ask performance questions based upon the problems the person will be solving if hired. “Here’s the problem…based upon this and what you know the person, why do you believe they would successfully solve this problem? Where might they fall short and why?”

    Then there’s the kicker: “If you had a son or daughter, would you let them date {the person]?”

    #Yowza

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