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Javed Murad (right), founder of White Owl Brewery, with his teammates at the Mumbai office. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Javed Murad (right), founder of White Owl Brewery, with his teammates at the Mumbai office. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

A recruiter’s dilemma: Trust instinct or data

Don't rely solely on background verification or references to check a candidate's competency. Mix it up with your gut feel and the information you have

At the beginning of this year, Javed Murad, founder of White Owl Brewery, did something that his company had never done before. He hired someone despite unfavourable references. Mumbai-based Murad and his team went with their gut instinct and for the first time ignored the policy they had put in place, which says if the references weren’t favourable or something didn’t add up, avoid recruiting the person. Besides references, to ensure that they get their hiring right, apart from Murad, three senior people from the organization, interview the person. If even one person rejects a candidate with valid reasons, the person is not hired. In this case, all the four liked the person, who presented herself very well, was well-prepared, came up with great ideas and was vocal about things, he recalls. However, a couple of months later, the person was fired. “Something was off. When we got the three references—two professional and one personal—they were not vehemently negative but one person said a few things that we thought were really random about someone who has provided the person as a reference. Even the personal reference was ambivalent," explains Murad. While they thought it was bit weird, since all four really liked this person, they decided to hire her and keep an eye out for the concerns that had been flagged. “We were terribly wrong. All those topics that were flagged in references, all of them came true in the first two weeks. Those issues kept repeating despite the person apologizing. Her mechanism of operating was affecting junior people and ultimately, we had to fire that person. It was the first time we had fired anyone and we learnt the hard way that ignoring the references was a bad decision we had taken internally."

A recruiter’s job is never easy. You interview someone, check their ability through a test and after discussing with a few colleagues, decide if the candidate is fit enough to join the company. A recruiter has to decide all of this on the basis of a few hours’ interaction. In today’s day and age, background verification is usually carried out in advance to make sure the person is a credible potential hire. But what happens if, in spite of a thorough check, the employee turns out to be a misfit for the company? What should a recruiter trust more: a methodical background verification, or his or her instinct?

The gut feel

“Checking for the desired behavioural attributes is a vital part of the interviewing process as it determines whether the person is a right culture fit for the team and the organization as a whole. To gauge this effectively, one must possess an analytical bent of mind and a basic understanding of social psychology," says Shamita Ghosh, general manager (human resources) of online ticketing platform BookMyShow. Ghosh believes that most interviewees are well equipped with the understanding of the ideal answers to questions and they seldom reveal their weaknesses or certain traits which might be socially undesirable. This makes behavioural attributes difficult to judge.

However, recruiters have found their own ways around it. For Anushree Singh, director HR, label and graphic materials, South Asia at Avery Dennison (a global producer and distributor of pressure-sensitive adhesive materials, apparel branding labels, etc.), looking out for a person’s behavioural attributes depends on the interviewer’s judgement during a face-to-face interaction. “My colleagues and I converse with the candidate throughly. Between us, we divide the core area of expertise that we are going to focus on while interviewing the candidate. Through this, we can focus on all facets of the interview. Secondly, I rely a lot on human interaction because a candidate might be able to fake it for some time but in multiple rounds, the validity and reliability gets established," explains Singh.

The reference checks

A recommendation is a written proof that shows the qualitative aspect of the performance of the resource, which background verification ignores.

Kapil Sharma, chief sales officer at Collabera India, an IT recruitment and services provider, says, “Things like who has written the recommendation, what was his professional relationship with the resource, the way it is written, the choice of words, all of these give a clearer picture of the qualitative aspect of the candidate."

But can these be the be-all and end-all? According to Sreeja Pillai, head (HR) of customer loyalty programme firm Payback India, a recommendation should always be taken with a pinch of salt. “I have had people who have not necessarily had the best references from the previous organization, but have performed as stars. If you take only one reference, there is a greater risk. But if you go back two or three organizations and personal references, you will be able to decide if it is a trend or a pattern," she adds.

The background check

The subjectivity of a background check has reduced because of the digital world, feels Sanjay Kaushik, managing director of Netrika, a security and risk management service. In most cases, where different levels of physical verification are needed, the digital world helps confirm some of the findings. “The online presence of the person helps establish a trend of what the person’s driving factors are. A person whose online posts, partnerships, association show he or she is enamoured by the manufacturing industry, may not have his heart in the services industry. When such a trend is established with the help professional qualifications, background check and personal notes (on various social platforms), a discernible trend can be hand," says Kaushik. He adds that in a large geography like India, technology supports the background check but conventional ways to conduct background checks should not be discarded. “Also, recruitment and background checks are generally in conflict as the recruiter would want the position to be filled fast, so guard against taking too many short-cuts," says Kaushik.

What is the solution then?

While the candidate’s track record of achievements, contributions and participation in their previous organizations are indicators of proactiveness with the right mindset, only a deep dive into the background and understanding will give clarity on his or her style of work and thought process.

Swati Khandelwal, vice president (HR) of revenue cycle management firm R1 RCM India, agrees. “Background and reference checks provide historical reference of the individual. Fitting into an organization, role, culture, pace cannot be judged by historical indicators. Hence, a recruiting manager’s own judgement is extremely important. Reference checks supplement feedback gathered through the selection process," she adds.

Meanwhile, Murad and his team at White Owl Brewery have a new plan. “Gut feeling is important and it’s an art, but we have also put in place certain practical processes, which is the science. If the reference checks of the candidates are not positive and if we are unsure, we call them again to cross check," he says.


Avoid that hiring mistake

How a person performs in a specific role depends on a lot of things—including his dynamics with his boss, interaction with colleagues. Look out for any red flags in these areas.

If the background or reference checks show someone has an integrity issue, do not touch the potential candidate.

Do not try to cover up if your hire is not performing. If any performance improvement plan does not work, talk to the hiring manager or team leads.

It can be that someone is not great at their job, but they might excel in a different role. Check if you have made a mistake on role assignment.

—Sreeja Pillai, head (HR), Payback India

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