Have you ever provided references to an employer or potential client? At one point or another, the vast majority of us have had to go through this inane exercise.

Let me guess: When it came time to supply references, you dipped into the pool of people who think you're the greatest thing since sliced bread, confidently slapped their names into an email or work application, and felt sheer exuberance as you sent it off knowing full well that your references would say that you routinely walk on water.

If that's exactly what you did, you're not alone.

When it comes to supplying references, we as human beings make only one choice--we supply the contact information of people we know will say wonderful things about us. But if that's true, how are we, on the hiring side, supposed to determine whether the potential vendor or employee is a good fit?

Of course, there's no way at all for us to tell whom we're vetting by simply asking a few references and taking their words at face value. That's why our agency (and several other companies I know) don't ask for references at all.

Instead, here are four things you can do to determine whether the candidate is a good choice, while avoiding the peculiar and unhelpful exercise of checking references:

1. Test their personality

There are lots of personality tests out there that employers are using today, including the Caliper Profile, Gallup StrengthsFinder and popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. These tests ask fascinating questions that sort the test-taker into certain psychological profiles. Then, the company can match your profile against its best employees and see if you'll fit. No human error necessary!

2. Vet their values

At our agency, we send candidates a "values assessment," which asks them questions geared towards our values. For instance, we ask them to talk about times in their lives when they've exhibited our core values, and use the responses as talking points in live interviews. This allows us to not only gauge their fit with our own values, but also to see how they think about culture, group dynamics and organizational behavior in their responses.

We use this tactic on potential vendors, too--particularly when we are looking for a longer-term vendor needing a healthy relationship to fall back on when there is a challenge to overcome together.

3. Role-play

My friend's recent four-month interview at her new employer (yes, it really did last that long) involved one full-day of comprehensive role-playing. Three current employees interviewed her by setting up scenarios and asking her to respond as if she had gotten the position and was truly involved in each particular situation.

By role-playing, her interviewers could see how she would react in certain situations. But they also had the opportunity to measure her quick-thinking skills, behavior under high-pressure situations and ability to be flexible and adaptable.

4. Try before you buy

Ultimately, there's no crystal ball. At our agency, we have 90-day contingency periods in which employees are measured against strict, key performance indicators. Everyone who comes on-board is told that the first three months are a trial period in which we will be measuring cultural fit, abilities and feedback from across the organization about the new employee's performance. There's often no substitute for dating before the marriage!

Surprisingly, there is one incredible reason to ask for references, if you do it the right way. Another acquaintance applying for a new job was asked for specific references that could speak to her experience in a work environment, including past colleagues, bosses and direct reports.

However, they didn't call her references until after she was hired. It turns out that they only wanted references to inquire about how she worked best, what working with her was like, and what they could expect by having her on the team.

After hiring her, that smart company is well-prepared to evaluate her work and behavior against her past performance, making everyone accountable for a great fit. For sure, the lack of accountability is what makes references so useless in the first place. So, try out some of these techniques instead to see how you might find your next perfect work relationship.

Published on: Apr 12, 2017
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