Tenacity and References: Two Things Needed to Hire the Right Person

“It’s in the EQ/social behavior area where our candidate evaluations repeatedly fall short. It’s almost as if we close our eyes and hope for the best—and then wonder why we didn’t get it.”  (Email from an executive facing the prospect of selecting multiple departmental leaders.)

You have a bus and you want to get the right people on it. Or you have a bus and you want to select a driver who won’t take you, your colleagues, and your workplace into the ditch.

A recurring concern, more like a despondent wail of desperation, is how difficult it is to predict the attitude and behavior of a potential hire. The crux of the selection issue is predicting how candidates will behave after they’re on board.

How can you select someone who will behave as promised?

1.    Tenacity.

2.    References.  (I know, I know, that’s why you need #1.)

The only way to confidently predict how people will act after you hire or promote them is to look at how they’ve behaved in the past.  The mantra of behavioral interviewing is “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”  This is not only intuitive— there is actually research that has established the veracity of “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”

Behavioral interviewing techniques are widely used and elicit descriptions of past behavior by the candidate.  Another approach is the situational interview in which an applicant is asked to respond to questions about job-relevant scenarios.  Both of these techniques are improvements on interviews where candidates might be asked a few spontaneous questions or asked to freestyle on what they might do in a hypothetical situation. However, even a marvelous interview, in which candidates provide relevant examples and sparkling anecdotes, is NOT a reason to hire someone.

The interview is a performance.  There are wonderful, brilliant, hard-working people who are unimpressive in an interview. Also, some people with the most difficult personalities (empathy-free zones) give GREAT INTERVIEWS.  A self-absorbed, disdainful, micromanager might be articulate, confident, and prepped with wonderful anecdotes and convincing scenarios and able to pull the interviewer right into their inflated view of self.  If you have hired a few people you may be nodding ruefully as you walk down that memory lane.

The well-conducted interview has three valuable purposes:

  1.  Ruling people out (never in).
  2.  Creating important connectivity (public relations) for the organization.
  3.  Acquainting the potential hire with organizational values and expectations.

The interview is a performance.  It can be used to rule someone out, but should never be used to rule someone in.

So to put your eyes on past behavior you need references.

Maybe you are your best reference. If you know an individual and you’re well acquainted with their behaviors then you are an excellent reference. Knowing a candidate’s behavior and skills firsthand is a great reason to have intern programs, to promote from within, or to arrange work trials before hiring. Please don’t discount or exclude yourself as a reference with internal searches.  I’ve had people tell me that because they know the candidates they think they should be “neutral” during a search process. It is okay to be neutral on the final selection among top candidates as long as you’re clear on criteria and you are forthcoming about relevant behavior you’ve witnessed.

If you haven’t personally witnessed a candidate’s past behavior you need a proxy. That proxy is a reference.   It’s time to redefine the concept of a reference.

For these important purposes, a reference is NOT:

  • a stranger who wrote a nice letter about the candidate
  • one of the three names provided by the candidate who you lamely try to reach for several days before giving up
  • an anonymous on-line survey of the candidate’s co-workers
  • the hurried phone conversation wedged between various urgencies (“okay, she hasn’t boiled a rabbit on anyone’s stove, has she??”)

References are people you trust who are willing and able to accurately describe the relevant characteristics and behavior of your job candidate.

So the reference has a primary relationship to YOU, not (necessarily) a primary relationship to the candidate. Really nice if both are true—which is true if the reference is YOU, and it’s true if the candidate’s boss is your trusted friend.

People say you just can’t get references.  Yes you can. The problem is that it’s such an aggravation.  And the aggravation is in your face.  The narcissistic behavior lurking beneath the surface of your delightful, confident candidate is an invisible, but much more threatening aggravation in the long run.

A sampling of reference-checking aggravations:

  • The folks in HR say: “Can’t, can’t, can’t.”
  • The legal department sees employment claims as personal failures rather than an occasional outcome when serving the organization’s needs.
  • References don’t call you back.
  • Reference letters are bogus. “Hey, wait a minute, is someone trying to move this person off their team and onto mine?”
  • References only provide you “date-to-date” information about past employment.
  • It’s time-consuming and there are no resources allotted to this task.
  • The candidate’s job search is confidential.

Please hark back to the first bullet: TENACITY.  You need it to get useful references, and yes, you do need useful references.

In many professions it is not that difficult to find someone you know and trust who knows your candidate, or who has access to someone who knows your candidate.  In my last organizational role we created a database of all the professionals in our large group and all the institutions where they had trained and previously worked.  This allowed us to identify someone in our organization who had a reliable connection to job applicants.

When you can’t find anyone with a connection, then skilled “three-deep” reference checking comes in to play.  This means asking people who have worked with the candidate (the candidate’s references) to provide additional references including someone “who might feel differently than you” or “who has had a challenging relationship with the candidate.”

The skids are greased by sending a release of information signed by the candidate saying that you can talk to anyone to verify their attitude, work ethic, quality of their work, technical competence, etc.

The confidential job search stymies many people when it comes to checking a candidate’s references.  What the situation calls for is a carefully choreographed dance.  The final step in the dance is not taken until you talk with references to corroborate your findings about the candidate’s past behavior.

A useful lever with “date-to-date” responses is to put that aggravation in the candidates’ laps.  Let them know you will not hire someone without access (ideally arranged by the candidate) to conversations with former colleagues and managers.   Make sure you have a release of information signed by the candidate and then ask those first references to provide additional names.

I hear the protests:  “But we don’t want to lose any of these candidates!” and “We don’t exactly have a crowd of candidates rushing our doors!” Excellent hiring, particularly of leaders, is an investment in creating a select, engaged, and enviable work culture.  With time, the candidates you want will be lined up at the door, and they will be privileged to go along with your rigorous process.

While this is a time-consuming investment it is less laborious when the leadership team and the selection team are passionate about getting the right people in the door.

When top leaders prioritize meticulous selection they:

  • Ensure that the HR and legal departments are strategic partners, not reactionary barriers.
  • Champion the business and financial case for excellent selection and recognize exemplary leaders for this work.
  • Sponsor the resources (time and dollars) needed to do the job well so that those with a passion for selection are encouraged to lead the talent hunt.

What’s the result?  Instead of trepidation with each hire you can experience an upward spiral of clear expectations, solid processes, excellent hires, and great attitudes.  The clarity of values and expectations required for great hiring processes sets the stage for straightforward performance management. Investing time and energy in getting the right people in the door is a great first step to reenergize leaders, improve teams, create great careers for the talent you select, and ultimately to produce excellent business outcomes.


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Patty Fahy

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