Conducting reference checks

A reference check forms a key part of the hiring process, providing independent insights into a candidate’s past work performance and cultural fit. There are plenty of candidates, who can look outstanding on paper and come across brilliantly during an interview.

But by speaking with an independent third party it’s possible to learn valuable details about a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses to help determine if they are right for the role on offer.

Why reference check?

A resume will tell you about a candidate’s career background and qualifications. The interview allows you to add to this information and assess a candidate in person. A reference check builds on the picture built up so far by providing details from an outside source, and as such it is an opportunity worth taking advantage of.

Not only can a referee add to your understanding of a candidate, checking references can also identify whether a candidate’s claims about qualifications, length of experience or previous roles held is confirmed.

Speaking with a referee also helps to create a more level playing field. Reference checking can highlight those candidates who may perform poorly during an interview but who are excellent employees. Conversely, the process can identify candidates who naturally shine during interviews but who may lack the qualities needed to be successful in a role.

As a professional courtesy always let candidates know that if they make the shortlist, you plan to conduct a thorough reference check. This is also an opportunity to confirm that the contact details provided for referees are current and correct.

Allow time for a reference check

Speaking with referees is not a task to delegate. The hiring manager who interviewed the candidate is best placed to know which skills and abilities are most needed to undertake the role effectively.

Similarly, that same hiring manager will know which aspects of a candidate’s resume require professional verification from the reference.

Pick up the phone

The best reference check information comes through verbal communication. Letters or emails sent to companies are often ignored so be prepared to pick up the phone and speak with referees in person. This provides the benefit of being able to ask spontaneous questions, and detect any nuances in the referee’s voice like enthusiasm – or lack of it – that can reflect on the candidate.

Where possible, speak with a candidate’s former manager or even co-workers. This will provide more insightful comments than talking to human resources personnel.

Plan your reference check questions

The downside to reference checking is that it is not always easy to get a referee to open up.

This being the case, it is important to frame reference check questions the right way. If in doubt, review your reference checking procedures with the company’s legal team. Even so, be prepared for truncated responses – some businesses adopt a strict policy of only confirming the candidate worked for them for a stated period.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid touching on particular areas such as the candidate’s marital status, age, religion, gender, disabilities, ethnicity or other personal matters to avoid running foul of discrimination laws.

Start with the basic reference check questions

A reference check call should be a low-pressure conversation, and referees can be put at ease if the discussion starts with the basics. Suitable questions include:

  • How long did the candidate work for your organisation?
  • What type of work did the candidate do?

Narrow the line of questions

Having eased into the call with some basic reference check questions, it’s time to move on to more substantial topics that will cover a potential employee’s capabilities.

If referees are available to talk further, pose some tough questions like:

  • Can you describe some of the candidate’s weaknesses/strengths?
  • How well did the person work as part of a team?
  • What kind of people did the candidate have a more difficult time working with?
  • Was the candidate punctual to work on time?
  • Would you rehire the candidate in the future?

These reference check questions are a strong starting point to gain a clearer understanding of a prospective employee. Additional questions may apply that are unique to the role and the candidate.

The more information you have about a candidate, the better placed you are to assess their suitability for the role and the organisation. A reference check adds time to the hiring process, but it is a crucial tool that can reveal what a candidate is really like in the workplace and whether they are the right for the role on offer.

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