Know the dos and don’ts of checking references before you hire


One of the key components of any candidate interview is checking references listed on their resume and/or application. A candidate’s past performance is a strong indicator to how well they will do with future roles, making the reference check of the utmost importance. However, checking a reference requires more than simply calling past employers and asking if they enjoyed working with your candidate. There is a right way, and a wrong way, to go about reference checking, and by knowing how to do it the right way, you increase your chances of getting a good employee. To assist you, here are a few Do’s and Don’ts to keep in mind when you’re conducting a reference check.

Do narrow down candidates first

This bit is pretty much “Hiring 101”, but it still needs to be mentioned. You could be dealing with dozens if not hundreds of applicants for each open position. Trying to conduct a reference check for each resume you receive is impossible, and a bad use of your time. A reference check should be used as one of the later parts of the hiring process, not one of the first. Instead, scan through resumes to find the best candidates, then conduct your interviews. Based on these interviews, narrow it down to just a few of the top candidates, then go about conducting detailed reference checks.

Don’t conduct a reference check without consent

Once your final candidates are narrowed down, you’re ready to begin checking their references. Before you begin calling past or present employers, you need to get the consent of your candidate. You may have done this during the interview process, but if not, take this extra precaution to ensure you have their consent. Most candidates may not want you to contact a specific reference, such as a current employer who is likely unaware they are considering a career change. In some cases, the candidate may only give you permission to contact references that they have listed from past employers, while others will give you consent to conduct informal reference checks as well, which is when you contact an additional reference not listed on their resume; for instance, a prior colleague of theirs that you may happen to be connected with on LinkedIn. However, if a candidate states that they do not want you to contact any of their past employers, you should view this as a warning sign. (We recommend asking the candidate why.) And as always, make sure to get the candidate’s consent in writing, just so that you have everything documented.

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Do ask the right questions

The most important part of any reference check is the questions that you ask. By asking the right questions, you can learn the information necessary to make a good hiring decision. First, determine the relationship between the person you are speaking to and the candidate, then ask about the information your candidate told you to confirm everything. Make sure the job title, dates of employment, and job duties all line up. After that, you can ask about specific details of the job and how your candidate handled different responsibilities.

Don’t change the questions based on the candidate

One common mistake made when checking references is to tailor the questions based on the candidate. The problem with this is that it does not allow you to easily and fairly compare candidates against one another if each past employer was asked different questions. Be sure to have a blanket list of questions set before to ask all candidates’ references. For instance, if you need to ask for specifics about two completely different jobs, you should ask for the same sort of specifics of their prior work performance and how those details fit in with the role they are applying for.

Do talk to the right people

When checking references, it is important to speak to the right people. If the candidate gave you consent to also perform informal references, put some thought into who you should contact. Talking to the CEO of a company may not do you much good if they never had contact with your candidate or did not work with them on a daily basis. Instead, ask to speak to their direct supervisor – someone who would have the best knowledge about their day-to-day work. Additionally, ask if they can offer any advice about how to best manage your potential new hire.

Do pay attention to what is not being said

There may come a time when a supervisor you are speaking with is reluctant to criticize one of their past or current employees. Remind them that you have the candidate’s consent and that it’s confidential. They may like the employee, and not wish to hinder their career by speaking negatively about them. According to The Society For Human Resource Management, it is important to pay attention to what past employers neglect to say when checking references. Look for answers that are vague or neutral rather than positive. Make a note of this, and look to other references for more information.

Don’t place too much emphasis on one reference

Many people have at least one bad work experience or personality clash in their past. Do not let this stop you from hiring that person. If you talk to a past employer and they say things did not end well, be understanding and try to find out why. Then talk to your candidate and get their side of the story. Take everything into consideration, including the other references you have talked to, to get the best idea about your candidate. If you are still unsure, consider asking your candidate for a reference from their past client/customer or coworker.

Do take notes

Lastly, it is important to take good notes when you are conducting a reference check. A good practice is to come up with a outline consisting of a list of questions and use it for every candidate. This will allow you to compare all candidates against one another, and have a written record for each candidate. This can come in handy if your top choice drops out of the running for whatever reason, and you need to go with your next pick. By having a written record on their past performances, you can easily compare candidates against one another, and save this confidential information for a later date if you need it.

Make checking references a key component in your hiring process

According to the United States Office of Personnel Management, checking references “have been shown to be a useful predictor of job performance (as measured by supervisory ratings), training success, promotion potential, and employee turnover.” If you want to make sure that you are hiring the best possible employee, then checking references need to be an integral part of the hiring process. However, it is not enough to simply check references – you have to go about them the right way.

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