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Automation Can Help Ease the Pain of Reference Checking

Reference checking is getting a whole lot easier—and some say more accurate—thanks to web-based automation. Recruiters view reference checking as a critical step in the hiring process, but the time involved in tracking down contacts on the phone and the difficulty getting them to say more than dates of employment and title takes away much of the value.

Online automated reference checking, however, offers anonymity for the reference, efficiency for the recruiter and a more comprehensive report on the candidate for the hiring manager.

“It’s simply automating one of the last elements of recruiting that used to be heavily manual,” said Yves Lermusi, CEO of Checkster in Mill Valley, Calif., which offers a product called Reference Checkup. “Because it is confidential, people are more forthcoming. And because it’s online, the process goes faster.”

Drawbacks noted with such systems include the inability of a recruiter to follow up with a reference for clarification or to hear the reference’s tone of voice. Also, these survey tools don’t assess the candidate’s technical skills.

But for assessing behavior, automated reference checking offers many benefits to recruiters and their companies.

Time Efficiencies

In traditional reference checking, a recruiter will spend 30 minutes to over an hour calling roughly three references supplied by the candidate over a period of three or four days. “Reference checks are very time-consuming and intrusive to the reference,” said Babek Dehnad, vice president of human resources at Phoenix Technologies in Milpitas, Calif., and a client of Checkster. “You can lose the candidate during the time it takes to make a telephone reference.”

With automation, the recruiter takes about two minutes to send an e-mail link to the job candidate. It is then that the candidate, not the recruiter, takes the initiative to contact five or more references to fill out a tailored questionnaire online. The vendor collects the surveys and creates an analytical report for the recruiter and the hiring manager.

Lou Manzi, vice president of global talent solutions at GlaxoSmithKline in Philadelphia, turned to SkillSurvey’s automated reference checking product about a year ago. He said references now respond in 1.2 days instead of four, and the response rate has soared from 2.5 to 7.1.


Berwyn, Pa.-based SkillSurvey boasts more than 100 questionnaires developed by scientists for different job families. But companies can ask their vendor to customize the surveys for their specific needs. For instance, GlaxoSmithKline asked SkillSurvey to include questions about integrity. Each survey runs about 20 to 25 questions on job-specific behavior, work performance and ethics.

To ensure anonymity, the vendor does not create the report until at least three references have completed the task. Checkster’s report contains four main sections. The first section is a top-line summary of the candidate with scores on probability of rehire and overall performance. Open-ended questions on strengths, accomplishments and improvements are included in the second section. References rate 15 attributes—which are different for each job category—in the third section. Finally, the qualifications of raters, such as supervisors, colleagues, co-workers, as well as length of association with the candidate, round out the report.

Reference Accuracy, Volume of Response

Users say the confidentiality of automated reference checking allows references to be more candid about the candidate’s past behavior on the job.

“I’ve been doing this job a long time, and I was blown away by the verbatim comments, which are more accurate, more honest than anything I’ve ever seen in verbal reference checking,” said Manzi.

The volume of references is another reason vendors say the automated system can be more accurate. “We get six to 10 references per candidate with this system,” said Lermusi. “The higher number of references gives you a richer perspective of the [candidate] you are interviewing.”

Ray Bixler, president and CEO of SkillSurvey, said the consistency of references improves with automation. “One recruiter’s ability to take notes or ask good questions varies over another, so you take that out of the equation.”

Interview Data

Typically, reference checking is done as part of a background check at the end of the process—after the recruiter and managers have invested a lot of time interviewing the candidate and after they have eliminated other candidates.

“Very rarely do companies rescind a job offer based on a reference check, because you don’t want to start over,” said Bixler. “But if you use reference checking as an assessment tool, you can ask questions based on the report during the interview process.”

Because of the timeliness and quality of the responses, Manzi decided to move up reference checking in the hiring process and to use the summarized report during the first in-person interview.

As an example, he read a statement from a report he received about a current candidate: “ ‘Applicant could be more persuasive and influential … affecting his ability to close the deal.’ In the interview, I will ask the candidate, ‘Has there ever been a time when a lack of persuasiveness affected your ability to close a deal?’ That kind of data would never have been available without this instrument.”

Legal Protection

Automated reference checking can help minimize the legal risks for the company seeking the reference because the request comes from the candidate, not the organization. In addition, because the form is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission-compliant, the company doesn’t run the risk of a recruiter asking an off-limits question. For the reference provider, the anonymity of the online form protects the organization.

Cost Efficiencies

Companies can use the web-based tool from the vendor’s site or they can integrate it into their applicant tracking systems. Cost estimates of the systems noted here average between $50 and $60 per candidate down to $10 per candidate as the volume increases.

Reference Tracking

Hiring managers, references and candidates have responded well. “Our hiring managers rated the tool a 4.4 out of 5,” said Manzi. “They are reporting that the recruiter is getting higher quality of candidates.”

SkillSurvey reports that 90 percent of references complete the survey. Bixler said candidates also have been positive and note “the cutting-edge use of technology by the company.”

Dehnad appreciates the unexpected benefits of automated reference checks. “I can forward the comprehensive reports to executives,” he said. “Candidates receive the reports, which help their own development. Checkster also gives weekly or monthly reports [to clients] on our recruiting activity.”

To reach the elusive passive candidate pool, both vendors offer an “opt in” button to surveys that ask references if they would like more information about career opportunities at the company seeking their reference. At five references per candidate, that can add up to a large source of talent.

“It’s like a referral program built in,” said Bixler.

Adrienne Fox, a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va., is former managing editor of HR Magazine.


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