Reference-Check Your Way to Better Talent

Problem: Construction firm CH2M Hill did not have a method to maintain quality-of-hire through its reference-checking efforts. Valuable information from references was not reaching hiring managers. The company’s talent leaders wanted a new method to ensure they were hiring top engineers for client projects and building the pipeline for future leadership.

Solution: The company deployed an online reference-checking system that offered behavioral feedback on each candidate pre-hire. This opened the channels of communication between recruiters and hiring managers and created the ability to gather real-time metrics from reference checks. CH2M Hill could deliver quality talent to projects in a shorter time frame that would accommodate demanding schedules.

When Tim Keefe arrived in 2006 as vice president of enterprise talent acquisition and deployment for CH2M Hill, there was no consistent process for checking references on engineering candidates across nine different business operation areas. The 30,000-employee global engineering procurement and construction firm had no method to improve the delivery and quality-of-hire through the reference-checking function, and information coming from reference-checking efforts was not influential.

Keefe viewed the firm’s entire recruitment model through a Six Sigma lens as part of the department operations analysis he conducted shortly after arriving. The analysis allowed him to pay close attention to functions that could be completely reworked for efficiency and quality by measuring the exact time spent on every function.

He said the reference-checking process could be improved and measured better. At the time, the company depended on recruitment coordinators to conduct reference interviews and compile reports — a step that often took more than 100 hours for each open position.

Yet, despite those efforts, the necessary information wasn’t filtering through to hiring managers and was not influencing quality-of-hire. Further, recruiting coordinators were spending days leaving voice mails for a reference check. When a coordinator was able to reach a reference via phone, 50 percent would not provide any information due in part to liability concerns.

“Sometimes the only information making its way to the hiring manager was whether or not to hire,” Keefe said. “The people conducting the reference checks couldn’t translate what they heard from references into information that helped the hiring managers really understand the candidates’ capabilities.

“A lot of hiring managers say they know in their gut what quality-of-hire looks like, but in reality it’s hard to know.”

Automation to the Rescue
Keefe found a better way to check references in 2007 with an automated online reference-checking system that gathers and reports information on job candidates’ behaviors and skills directly from their managers, peers, subordinates and business partners.

The process starts when a notification is sent from the recruiter to the candidate via email. The candidate opens the email from the recruiter and enters references’ contact information, while also signing a waiver releasing all parties of liability. The references then automatically receive an email from the candidate, requesting their individual participation in a reference-check survey.

As references proceed, they complete an electronic survey that contains 20 to 30 questions pertaining to the behaviors correlating with success for engineering positions. Examples ask references to rate how the candidate “makes decisions and solves problems using sound reasoning and judgment” and “demonstrates proficiency with appropriate software applications and technology” and “adheres to the highest possible standards of ethics and integrity and complies with all applicable ethical, legal and regulatory standards.”

References also have an opportunity to provide open, verbatim comments on each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and today more than 80 percent of references do so for CH2M Hill.
All answers to the survey questions and feedback provided in the comment area are aggregated to preserve confidentiality, and the results are sent back electronically to the recruiter to analyze with the hiring manager.

This invitation format achieved an average 82 percent response rate for CH2M Hill from July 2011 to July 2012 because the request comes as a personal appeal from the candidate. The candidate’s name is familiar to the reference, versus a blind solicitation from a recruiter.

Keefe’s team is also reviewing a plan to leverage a hiring manager summary within the system that comes with the overall reference feedback report. This option became available in August and includes sample interview questions for the hiring manager to ask the candidate on the next round of interviews. The company also plans to take advantage of five new language options for the reference-checking surveys, which became available during the second quarter of this year and include Spanish (Latin American), French, German, Portuguese (Brazilian) and Chinese (Simplified).

Proof of Improvements
As a result of the overall system’s use, a different hiring protocol emerged at CH2M Hill, changing the point at which the HR team executes the reference check. Because of the transparent feedback and information coming in on a candidate’s behaviors, the reference check has been moved from the end of the hiring process to immediately following the initial round of interviews. This change, which was implemented in 2007, allows the results of the reference check to come back before the candidates are called back for final interviews, so the feedback can be used to influence the hiring decision.

“We bring the survey data into our interview debriefing sessions because it basically puts another dial on the dashboard,” Keefe said.

CH2M Hill originally piloted the system for three months in the United States and has expanded its use to every position in the United States and Canada, allowing the firm to discover and avoid candidates with high developmental needs.

The firm is also beginning to use this method in the U.K. and Middle East and has plans to roll it out to Latin America, China and Europe in 2013. In 2011, CH2M Hill acquired Halcrow, a European-based global planning and infrastructure design firm, and it is also adopting the online reference-checking system as the two companies merge their human resources operations. Keefe said he envisions that CH2M Hill will increase its use of the reference-checking system internationally as acquired companies such as Halcrow are retooled to match the HR team’s best practices.

From July 2007 to July 2012, the usage reports from the reference-checking system showed the following results:

• 4.51 references per candidate responded.
• Among references, 2.48 were managers.
• References responded within one business day.
• Decrease in the time spent checking references — 155 workweeks with the phone, versus 8.6 workweeks online.

These results translate into improved efficiencies. For example, in 2011, Keefe’s team filled more than 3,500 jobs globally within about 45 days for various projects. Without the reference-checking system, the same scenario would have taken 90 days or longer.

Further, recruiters and hiring managers receive a bar graph of each candidate’s reference feedback results on each of the behaviorally-based survey questions, and they take these values into consideration to compare strong contenders.

“If it becomes obvious that someone is known for developing more elegant or innovative solutions or is better at multi-tasking, that person could easily be moved to the top of the list,” Keefe said.

Seven percent of candidates are evaluated by references as having high professional developmental needs, and the company avoids hiring from this group (Figure 1).

Another 23 percent are considered moderate developmental need. In these instances, a hiring manager or recruiter may pause during the hiring process to ask candidates more questions about particular areas that were scored lower by their references.

Some 70 percent are showing an overall good fit, with low developmental needs. This group consists of people who are likely to be long-term employees for the organization. Prior to using the technology, there was no consistency in identifying these candidates.

Keefe said in one situation the feedback dramatically altered the course of a search. Following interviews for a vice president position, most senior hiring managers were ready to choose from what was deemed an excellent slate of external candidates. However, the reference-check survey results released before the debriefing sessions raised enough issues that the decision was revisited, and ultimately an internal candidate was offered the job instead.

Immediately following the completion of the reference-check surveys, references are presented with an opportunity to opt-in for a database of candidates interested in future employment opportunities. The more references touched by the system, the faster this passive candidate database grows.

From July 2007 to July 2012, 55 percent of those who served as references for job candidates applying to CH2M Hill opted into the passive candidate database. Keefe’s team can now use this exclusive database of more than 21,000 professionals to search for future candidates.

“At this point, we have overwhelming support for the system among hiring managers,” Keefe said. “It brings tremendous value to our recruiting process, as does the database of references who have indicated an interest in being contacted about future employment opportunities.”

Scott Fuhr is a director for SkillSurvey Inc., an online reference checking provider. He can be reached at