When it comes to things that supervisors (and, frankly, HR) don't look forward to, reference checking probably ranks in the top 5. Checking references is time consuming and difficult to do well, because many references refuse to do more than confirm name, job title, salary, and employment dates for fear of getting sued. This is unfortunate, since lawsuits in this area are quite rare and reference checks can be a great source of information.
So it was with no small amount of excitement that I discovered two web-based services that are automating the reference check process--Checkster and SkillSurvey. The basic idea behind these services is that a brief survey consisting of both rating scales and open-ended questions is sent out electronically to references; responses to these surveys (generally at least 3) are combined by the services into an overall report for the employer. While the services are substantially similar, in this post I'll give you a brief overview of each.
Checkster is the brainchild of CEO Yves Lermusi, formerly of Taleo (and frequent contributor to ERE). Lermusi noticed that the frequency and quality of the performance feedback most people receive drops dramatically when they move from school to work, making it difficult for people to understand their strengths and areas for development. To help remedy this, he developed Checkster to be a "personal feedback management tool"--a focus that he says distinguishes it from other services, whose bread and butter is employer-based reference checking. Applicants receive the results of the reference check, just as the employer does, with the idea that this information will be used to help people develop and make better decisions regarding their career.
With Checkster, the employer simply enters the name and e-mail address of each applicant along with the requisition and selects the type of survey to be delivered (Checkster also has a 360-degree survey). That's it. Simple, eh? The applicant takes it from there, logging into Checkster and entering reference names and contact information. References have 7 days to take the quick and confidential survey, and Checkster compiles the resulting information into a report after at least three responses have been collected. From the employer's side, a simple account screen allows you to manage your requisitions and see the status of each. You can see an overview of how it works here, and watch a demo here that includes pictures of a report.
Big bonus: Checkster also has a free employment verification feature which will send an e-mail to previous employers to verify dates of employment, reporting structure, compensation, and eligibility for rehire.
Price: $50 per requisition, which allows you to check references for up to five candidates with a maximum of 15 references per candidate (volume discounts are also available).
As I mentioned, SkillSurvey and Checkster work in a similar fashion--the employer enters candidate information, the candidate enters reference information (or the employer can), references evaluate the candidate, and SkillSurvey generates the report.
Differences between Checkster and SkillSurvey that I observed:
1) SkillSurvey allows you to choose different types of surveys depending on the job. Each includes competencies developed by SkillSurvey staff. For example, there are different surveys for sales positions, IT positions, and HR positions (click here for an example for Marketing Manager).
2) Each point on SkillSurvey's rating scale is anchored, which could potentially lead to better reliability.
3) SkillSurvey reports are not automatically available to the candidate (unlike Checkster)--this reflects the emphasis that SkillSurvey places on being primarily a tool for the employer, versus Checkster's focus on individual development.
4) SkillSurvey has a sourcing component built in--you can download a spreadsheet that contains all the information on reference-givers that you can sort and use to identify applicants (very cool).
5) Checkster's reports are a little shorter and more graphical, while SkillSurvey reports are more text-based and extensive.
6) In terms of customization, SkillSurvey offers many options for altering things like turnaround time, and even weighting questions.
7) The actual text that goes out from candidates is easier to modify using Checkster.
A SkillSurvey overview video with screens of surveys and reports is available here, and sample reports are here. They even have a blog written by Doug LaPasta, their founder and chairman.
Price: $59 for one candidate with significant discounts for volume; usually charged in units of 100 candidates. The employer controls the number of reference givers required for completion of the report (anywhere from 2-15).
By the way, SkillSurvey was selected as a Top HR Product for 2007 by Human Resource Executive.
Both products have the potential to dramatically decrease the amount of time spent checking references, and have the added benefits of standardization as well as indicating an affinity for technology. Both companies have taken steps to ensure reference givers feel comfortable giving out information. The information may also be of higher quality since the process is being handled by a third party.
Both services were extremely easy to use. I found representatives from both companies to be knowledgeable and helpful. I'm sure as both products mature we'll see great additions, including hopefully an increased ability to gather off-list checks and even more options for tailoring the surveys.
Some things to keep in mind: (1) Like all mass-mailing type services, make sure e-mails from these companies don't get blocked by firewalls; and (2) Because some candidates may provide false references, do periodic spot checks (e.g., by verifying name & e-mail address).
I hope this has peaked your interest; I suggest checking out both products to see if either would make your life easier!