Voodoo Reference Checking

Melanie Lockwood Herman

“Out of the box” thinking is a well worn cliché. No one wants to be an “in the box” thinker, yet it is harder than it sounds to approach our jobs in surprising, and really creative ways. Last week I had an opportunity to visit an establishment where the only normal thing is the fact that the products are sold in a box. Voodoo Doughnuts is a well-known tourist destination and hang-out for locals in Portland, OR. This unusual doughnut shop is open 24 hours, and attracts the largest crowds after dark. During my visit I joined a long line of carbohydrate craving customers patiently waiting for their turns to order. Instead of displaying doughnuts in a tray against the back wall (with convenient access to the clerk), Voodoo Doughnuts displays its unique confections in a revolving glass case in close proximity to the customer. I gazed longingly at a fluffy pastry covered in maple glaze and thick strips of crispy bacon. Then the case turned to reveal a giant peach fritter topped with cream cheese frosting and sprinkles.

While recovering from the overdose of sugar after my visit to Voodoo Doughnuts, it occurred to me that the business practices of this unusual bakery offer tasty advice about taking the routine practice of reference checking out of its customary “box.”

Commonly heard complaints about checking references include:

  • “Applicants only provide references prepared to offer glowing testimonials. What’s the point?”
  • “Employers are so fearful about getting sued that they won’t tell me the truth about an applicant.”
  • “I’m considering an applicant who has never done this type of work before; dated references are probably of little value.”

In addition to the common complaints above, many employers believe that three common myths about referencing checking are true. It’s time to separate fact from filling.

Dangerous Reference Checking Myths

  • Employers may only request a reference from the specific people listed as “references” by the applicant. Not true. There are no laws prohibiting your nonprofit from going beyond the list of references provided by the applicant. To be on the safe side and out of respect for an applicant, consider including a general statement on your application granting your nonprofit permission to “verify any and all information on this application, including performance at any prior place of employment.”
  • A relative of the applicant is unlikely to offer critical or truthful feedback on the applicant. According to hiring managers who actually call references who are relatives, this perception is simply not true! One hiring manager told me that “A blood relative is far more likely than a prior supervisor to offer a candid assessment of an applicant. Uncle Joe doesn’t fear being sued for defamation, so don’t be surprised if he tells you the applicant is habitually tardy for appointments or was fired from his last job!”
  • References are the least important tool in the screening process and can be skipped to save time. Wrong! A third-party reference is a far better predictor of future performance than an interview. Research shows that during an interview, applicants often describe attributes they wish to have (the employee they “want to be”), rather than attributes they actually possess. Also, interviewers generally decide on an applicant’s suitability during the first 30 seconds of the interview, and spend the remaining time looking for evidence to confirm their initial positive or negative impression.

Like the reference myths and tips discussed in this article, the décor, product names and attire of the staff at Voodoo Doughnuts can be a bit off-putting. But if you’re willing to savor this advice, you’re on a path to defy the ordinary and take your reference checking practices out of the cliché doughnut box. Remember:

  1. Reference checking is an invaluable screening tool. It offers your best opportunity to find out if an applicant is trustworthy, competent, and suited to your nonprofit’s culture.
  2. Obtain permission to verify any information contained on an application for employment and persevere in tracking down people who can offer insights on the applicant’s past performance and unique qualities.
  3. Don’t skip reference checking because it’s time-consuming and at times, frustrating. Waiting in a long line may be the path to a sweet reward—information you can use to choose the most suitable candidate for a key position.

For additional tips on checking references, including the most important questions to ask references for key positions in a nonprofit, sign up for our February Wednesday Webinar: Reference Checking – February 6, 2013 – 2 pm.

Melanie Lockwood Herman is Executive Director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She welcomes your ideas about any risk management topic, suggestions for best-in-class risk management, and questions about the Center’s resources at Melanie@nonprofitrisk.org or (202) 785-3891. The Center provides risk management tools and resources at www.nonprofitrisk.org and offers consulting assistance to organizations unwilling to leave their missions to chance.

Reprinted from the Nonprofit Risk Management Center's RISK eNews, January 23, 2013.

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