Issue: HR typically handles reference checking at large firms. Smaller firms and those with stronglet managers do it.
Benefit/risk: Farming out reference checks to supervisors will lighten your load but may heighten the risk of legal trouble.
Action: Avoid the all-or-none approach. Allow managers to handle reference checks where appropriate, but set boundaries.
While HR departments handle reference checking at most organizations, many supervisors are willing and capable of handling reference checks, too.
But that doesn't mean you should allow all supervisors to handle reference checks for all their openings. Review the pros and cons of letting managers take over this task:
1. More insight. Your organization may collect better intelligence because an applicant's former manager may feel more at ease speaking to his counterpart than to HR.
2. Time savings. Managers trained in reference checking can make the process more efficient. Less reference checking for you means more time spent on big-picture planning, which earns you bigger pay.
1. Not centralized. That makes it more difficult to ensure that reference checks are completed and comply with the law.
2. Managers may break the law. "Those untrained in privacy laws can potentially get the organization in trouble by asking inappropriate questions about race, health, gender, national origin, religion or marital status," says William Bliss, president of Bliss & Associates, a talent management consulting firm in Wayne, N.J.
3. Inexperience hurts results. Managers might not ask questions in ways that solicit the most useful information.
Paul Barada, president of Indiana-based reference-checking firm Barada Associates, offers this example: A manager wants a hands-on supervisor who can mold a team. When checking for references, the manager asks, "Is he a hands-on manager?" That's a leading question, which biases the answer. Instead, he should ask, "How would you describe his management style?"
Two reasons to say 'yes'
Here are two key circumstances under which you should let supervisors conduct their own checks:
- A job opening requires specialized technical, scientific or sales skills and experience that the hiring manager can verify better than HR.
- Top managers or execs have a reliable network of sources that will speak frankly and confidentially about prospective employees. Such a network is especially valuable because of the likelihood of receiving only "name, rank and serial number" responses to reference requests.
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