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Smarter Reference Checking

by Andrew Storrier

2 min read

Reference checks give us valuable independent insight into a candidate’s job performance and help us get a better overall picture of a potential hire. However, they can yield very little information if done incorrectly or on-the-fly. Instead, knowing the right questions to ask and how to interpret the responses are crucial to getting the most from the process.

Start the Check Early

Just like a journalist needs to fact check their work to ensure its integrity before they publish it, you need to check before you hire a candidate. Viewing the reference check as just another box to tick only harms the entire recruitment process. You might fail to probe for more information on potential poor qualities in a candidate or try to wrap the call up quickly. Instead, put yourself in a completely different mindset – one that treats reference checking as a serious and vital stage of recruitment.

Actively Listen and Ask Questions

A good reference check is similar to a good job interview: it’s standardised, structured and you’re prepared to branch from your questions based on a referee’s response. Once the check begins, keep an ear out for any implied criticism. Often a referee won’t openly complain about their previous employee – maybe for legal reasons – but it’s important to stay alert to any subtle negativity that might leak out, and probe them tactfully to get the full picture.

Good reference check questions assess how a referee feels about a candidate’s important personality traits, such as:

  • The applicant’s cooperativeness
  • Their general intelligence
  • Their motivation and willingness to go above and beyond
  • Their dependability
  • How they deal with others, particularly clients and customers

Other Helpful Tips

  • Call the referee for the candidate’s most recent job and their longest serving job. Choose direct managers to interview over peers
  • Make sure the candidate gives their referees a heads up – it’ll help everything run smoothly
  • One job and one manager doesn’t make a theme. Don’t attach too much weight to a negative call – ask another referee about the candidate
  • Get organised. Reference checking involves a lot of telephone tag, so you need to be ready at a moment’s notice to call these referees back and conduct an interview

If you follow these tips, you’ll make the most of your reference checks and improve your chances of hiring a superstar performer. Check out our other HR tips and advice.

Information may be abridged and therefore incomplete. This document/information does not constitute, and should not be considered a substitute for, legal or financial advice. Each financial situation is different, the advice provided is intended to be general. Please contact your financial or legal advisors for information specific to your situation.

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