The newly appointed human resources (HR) head had a task at hand. One particular business head was just not making the cut. His peer feedback had negative written all over it, whether it was domain knowledge, teamwork or organizational persona. Subordinates chafed at his high-handedness, “my way or the highway” mannerisms and insecurity. And the business head’s boss felt he was cutting corners, only managing perceptions and not being entirely truthful with the facts. All in all, prospects for the business head concerned were pretty bleak in the organization and the “New Broom” HR head had been called in to wield the proverbial axe.
And that was what led him to pore over the docket of the employee in question. The biodata, still crisp, confirmed the hire was new. Indeed he had been in the organization a mere six months. On the face of it, it was an impressive résumé. The previous employment dates tallied meticulously with the corresponding service certificates, the academic qualifications seemed solid, and finally the reference letter from his previous boss seemed strong. “Strong team player, great inter-personal skills, delivers on the promise,” said the testimonial. In fact, it was quite a testimonial. Bottom line: a “no kinks” message totally out of sync with the reality on the ground.
This was when the HR head realized that the referee was actually known to him and picked up the phone for a seemingly nonchalant chat about the business head concerned. The referee’s refrain should come as no surprise to any seasoned HR professional. “Of course, I gave that reference letter. But you know I had to do that in the formal communication, don’t you? But since you are my friend, let me tell you this. We were actually really glad to see him go. He was such a nuisance. Full of politics. He continually went above my head to my boss, isolated his team from the rest of the organization, has no depth… And I fear some of his earlier experience details may be all fictitious. But write about it in the testimonial —that I cannot do.”
Double-check: The smarter recruitment leaders tap their informal network for reference checks.
Welcome to the world of reference checks, “Indian shtyle”.
The smarter recruitment leaders know the importance of informal network reference checks. They are not taken in by formal organizational testimonials which eulogize candidates when in reality they are nothing but great outplacement Trojan Horses. Wielding their mobiles with ease, these seasoned recruiters reach out to the signatories for direct confirmation of candidate reputations. Forget the famed six degrees of separation, they are past masters in making the connections at much less the number.
Interviews themselves are goldmines for seasoned campaigners for future reference checking. They are constantly checking for referencing leads … “Which batch from IIT are you?” ; “Where did you do your MBA?” ; “ Did you know so and so?”; “Oh, so you worked in...; Did you know...? Was he your boss?”
And so go the barrage of questions!
And so it is the “Who you know” that is filed away for future use, much more than the “What you did”, quite contrary to what all the great interview questioning styles teach you to do. Oh, we do probe for achievements and attitude, collecting the examples or STARS, as they are euphemistically called in recruiting parlance. But it is the “Who’s” that really interest us. Because remember, with them comes the chance to do the sacred reference checks, the actual backbone of senior- and mid-level recruitment. And who can blame the HR for the reference-check obsession, given the number of fictitious biodatas in circulation.
But the zeal for robust reference checks can border on the realm of thoughtlessness. Current employers are sometimes pinged carelessly to suss out candidate reputation without so much as a “by-your-leave”. Many times this happens even before the interview has even happened. Which is why the adage “leaking like a proverbial sieve” gains particular relevance in the context of a résumé which, with a gentle tap of a finger, finds itself winging its way into the wide, wide Internet.
There are of course the professional reference checkers. While their reference-checking etiquette may at times leave much to be desired, this industry is now galloping in India in no small measure due to the mandatory reference checking prescribed by headquarter mandates for multi-national companies and even customers. Their green/red/yellow clearances on the education, employment, credit and criminal checks are awaited with bated breath. And in a hand-to-mouth situation, especially in the service industry, between prized recruitment and “ASAP” deployment of scarce talent, a Red on a reference check means a red-in-the-face manager explaining to a furious client why an employee had to be suddenly pulled out of an assignment….
Talking of consulates, they have indeed set new benchmarks for reference checking. State-of-the-art technology provides for direct-from-college and direct-from-company information uploads for credential checking, totally ruling out the need for Reference Checker Middlemen.
Finally, the matrimonial reference checks. Many a professional manager, in his time, gets a call from an acquaintance checking out a team member or a colleague for a marriage alliance. “How is his character?” and “What are his prospects?” are the questions most commonly posed. While many an expat manager may go green around the gills with the question, the savvy Indian counterpart will take it in his stride. Armed with a few discreet checks, he gets back with the relevant details. It is of course a different matter that the “checked out” employee is also usually given a sneak heads-up by his or her manager and so all’s well with the prospect as much aware of the check as the checker… That is par for the course, because we are, after all, like that only.
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Technologies Ltd.
Write to Hema at email@example.com