What’s the point of conducting reference checks?
When was the last time you actually did a reference check on a prospective employee? I have heard employers say; “What’s the point? They’ll only put people on there who will say nice stuff about them.”
While I have no doubt that’s true – I personally have people I wouldn’t want called for a reference on my behalf – there’s more to it than that.
In fact, chatting to a referee can give you some very insightful information that you wouldn’t get from the application or interview.
Which references should I contact?
Conduct at least two reference checks from past or present employers/supervisors to get a balance of information, and a diversity of information.
Ideally, they should be someone that understands how they are at work (ie: effective, hardworking etc). Make sure the referees are NOT family or friends.
What should you ask during a reference check?
Once you’re on the phone with the referee, what do you ask?
Firstly, establish what the applicant’s role was in projects that were cited in their interview or application. Were they just a passenger in the system or did they really have a key role? How involved were they? Did they require prompting? Did they have a tendency to take over? How did they fit in with their colleagues?
It’s a matter of being aware, informed and making good choices based on all the information you can get. Check out our recent post about the Essential Reference Check Rules for some more ideas on what to ask.
Context and Nuance
Checking references is not just about catching employees out, but also about learning the nuances of individuals.
For example, in your organisation it might be more important that a person’s personality and work-style fits into your organisation’s culture, than the level of their skills. You may choose somebody who is younger or may have fewer skills, but is very prepared to learn and take up new roles, than someone with more experience but whose attitude towards work may not fit into your work culture.
You can discover these nuances by talking to someone about how they work, their achievements, and what roles they have undertake. It doesn’t really matter whether or not you are looking for an employee at a high or low level, because even low level employees who don’t fit into your culture can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety.
Reference can also have the reverse effect. An interviewee can be modest and give you limited info about their role in projects. I have had a situation where a referee was contacted and the referee said that person “…walks on water, they are outstanding!” Consequently, that geared us up to quickly contact the applicant and sign them up as part of our team.
Your final employee decision is one that you will have to live with for a considerable amount of time. If you make a decision and get an employee that’s not right for the job, they may not only reduce your productivity but may also cause morale issues in the workplace. If they don’t have the skills, or cannot work at the rate or level that you expect, you may spend more time re-delegating their duties or prompting them.
In the worst-case scenario you will be faced with having to terminate them. In this case, all sorts of deadline issues and grief could result from one bad decision.
Most referees are quite honest and may save you from employing someone subpar.
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