“Your mission [Insert your name here], should you choose to accept it, . . .” (with apologies to the 1966-1973 TV series and the more recent movie franchise:
Hire someone to lead an organization that is facing external threats so extreme that its very existence is at risk.
Others (we’ll think of them as references) have stepped forward with their thoughts about a prime candidate:
- He suffers from bouts of depression*
- Some of his comments border on racist
- He’s already old enough to be retired (65)*
- He is a heavy smoker and drinks too much
- He’s overweight
- He loves gambling
- Many of his decisions have had disastrous consequences
What do you think? Is this someone who you entrust with a leadership position?
Of course, some of these observations—those marked with an asterisk—should not factor into your hiring decision, as that would discriminate against the candidate on grounds protected by human rights legislation.
Even setting those aside, almost of any one of the others would seem to disqualify this person from assuming a leadership role.
In the real-world situation that inspired this scenario, the decision makers ignored the naysayers and hired this candidate.
Fortunately, this turned out to be the right decision. It worked out. If it hadn’t, you might be reading this article in German.
By now, you have likely figured out that the person who attracted so many negative comments was Winston Churchill, who in May 1940 became the British prime minister and proved to be the right person to lead the nation through one of the darkest periods in its history.
What this exercise demonstrates is the importance of being cautious about what we hear when checking references. Most of the time, references are people you don’t know (i.e. strangers) and who you have no reason to trust will provide you with anything but candidate-approved (and perhaps candidate-scripted) words of praise.
If “Is X a good worker?” or “Would you hire Y again?” are typical of the questions you ask when checking references, you’re squandering a valuable opportunity to learn more about candidates before making hiring decisions.
If the stranger says you should—or should not—hire the candidate, what do you do?
You could take the advice and then explain that you made your decision because that’s what’s what a stranger told you to do. After all, if you can’t trust a stranger, who can you trust?
Or, it’s time to stop asking strangers for their opinions, because when it comes to hiring decisions, the only opinions that count are yours and those of other members of your interview panel.
Ask references to describe what the candidates did when they encountered circumstances similar to those your staff members face regularly—similar to what you should ask candidates to do during interviews.
When you ask questions about what the candidate did, you are using reference checks to gather evidence on which to base your hiring decision and turning the candidate’s references into your hiring allies.
Now, let’s recall the final words from the message on those Mission Impossible tapes.
“As always, should you or any of your Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck.”
Good luck indeed! When a hiring decision goes wrong, everyone seems to remember that it was your decision and everyone else disavows any responsibility.
Suggested Action: Review the questions you ask when checking references. Are you asking for their opinions or for descriptions of what the candidate did in specific circumstances? Be prepared to rewrite your questions to require reference to focus on the facts.
During Interview Right to Hire Right workshops, participants will develop reference check questions, which will help them gather high-quality evidence on which to base their hiring decisions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (780) 232-3828 to learn more or to schedule training for leaders from your organization.