Reference checking for cultural fit: How to do it and why it’s important

Culture clash

By following the traditional approach and leaving reference checks to the last stage of the recruitment process – or, worse, not doing them all – recruiters could be missing out on a valuable opportunity to make smarter, more informed hiring decisions.

An independent survey commissioned by Robert Half showed that two-thirds (66%) of Australian CFOs and finance directors have misjudged a job candidate’s fit with the company culture at least once, and 75% of companies have lost team members due to poor cultural fit.

“Most people spend the majority of their recruitment time focusing on skills, qualifications and experience, but cultural fit is the main reason people don’t work out in an organisation,” says Sandra Wood, founder and Managing Director of Great Managers.

“A professional services firm I used to work with initially wanted the best and the brightest candidates, so when we were recruiting, we’d look for high IQ levels, how they’ve performed at uni, their exam results and things like that.

“But what we learned very quickly was that while we wanted smart people, the people with the highest IQs who’d done the best at uni were often very reserved and not particularly social, and our firm was very social, so they weren’t going to fit in.”

Understand your company culture

The first step to better reference checking is identifying what cultural fit means for your organisation.

“One of the best ways to find out what cultural fit is, is through experience with what it isn’t. What did former employees bring that didn’t work out? What didn’t fit in?”

Reference check sooner, rather than later

Once you’ve established what you’re looking for, turn your timing on its head and start conducting reference checks earlier and more often.

“A really big thing people do wrong is approach the reference check as a ‘box ticker’ – they’re basically looking to confirm their decision to hire rather than using it as a really important part of the assessment process,” Wood says.

“A much more contemporary approach to recruitment is letting candidates know you’ll be reference checking more than one candidate, so we often recommend that reference checking happens before second interview.”

Understand the role and ask the right questions

A hesitation or rising inflection in a referee’s answer over the phone can say so much. For example, if a referee reluctantly says they’d re-hire an applicant, their lack of enthusiasm could be a big red flag.

But hesitation doesn’t necessarily have to be a deal-breaker, since every company is different. Just because the candidate wasn’t a good cultural fit at their previous place of employment, doesn’t mean they won’t be right for yours. Wood says hiring for cultural fit is about asking questions related to what you’ve decided your culture is – or isn’t – and how the referee has seen the candidate demonstrate these qualities.

Good questions to ask to find a good cultural fit include:

  • Can you tell me about a time when you’ve seen them ‘go the extra mile’?
  • What sets this candidate apart from people who you worked with in similar roles?
  • On a scale of nought to 10, how would you rate their teamwork? Tell me about the team, what the candidate worked on and how they contributed to that team. How well did they fit in?
  • How would you describe their attitude at work?
  • How would you describe their desire to perform in the role?
  • How do you think former co-workers would describe the candidate?
  • Tell me about the candidate’s communications skills – not just how well they spoke to others, but their capacity to listen as well.
  • Tell me how the candidate responded to feedback or stressful situations?
  • Why should I hire this candidate? Would you rehire the candidate?

“A reference check alone won’t give you all the answers to all your questions, as it needs to be considered in alignment with the entire application process, for example, the interview data, psychometric testing and so on,” Wood says. “You look at all of those data sets together before you make your decision.”

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