Why Should I Do A Reference Check?
Conducting a reference check is one of the best ways to find out how suitable a potential employee is for a job after interviewing.
It can be tricky to get all the information you need from a reference check though, especially if you’re not sure what to ask or what to look out for, so here are a few essential rules you should keep in mind.
Reference Check Rules
1. Verbal reference checks are better!
Email might be quicker in the short-term, but it also gives referees the chance edit themselves. When you talk to the referee, you’ll be able to hear their tone of voice and any pauses, which can tell you a lot about how they really feel about the candidate. It will also give you the opportunity to ask follow up questions and dig a little deeper.
Email reference checks can be easier for very busy referees, but if you do a reference check by email, you need more than one email to get some confidence with what they’re telling you about the applicant.
2. Superiors and above!
The referee should be a past supervisor or manager (NOT a friend, relative or colleague). This will give you a more objective view and a deeper insight into how the applicant performs at work. Anyone else is more likely to just tell you what you want to hear to bolster the applicant’s chances of being selected.
3. Make sure the referee is recent
As a general rule, a referee should be someone the applicant has worked with in the last two years. You don’t want to get a really dated opinion – people change. The referee could have a completely inaccurate measure of their current skills, knowledge, capabilities and attitude.
4. Ask open-ended questions
If the referee is able to answer all your questions monosyllabically with “yes” or “no” responses, you are going to get very limited real insight. Ask open-ended questions relating to the key skills and criteria required for the job, such as:
- How well do they do x?
- What can you tell me about their experience with y?
- Can you comment on their knowledge of z?
I also find it useful to ask some standard questions. Here are a few that I use that you might find helpful too:
- Do you have any general comments regarding their suitability for this role?
- Did they excel in any area of their work?
- Were there areas of their work requiring development?
- How would you describe their working relationship with:
- Direct reports?
- Can you comment on this person’s ability to work as part of a team?
- Are there any other issues we should be aware of?
5. Ask some pointed questions
Asking pointed questions is a good way to find out how the referee really feels about the applicant’s work skills and competency. An example could be “Would you re-employ them? What, if anything, would stop you from re-engaging them?” It’s not unheard of for referees who are current employers to give glowing references to employees they just want to get off their books. Drill down and ask the referee for specific examples of why the applicant was a good employee, and you’ll get more insightful information.
7. Test claims made in interviews
Reference checks are an excellent opportunity to follow up on claims made in interviews. If the applicant said they worked on a task or project on a regular basis or had a particular responsibility, make sure you ask the referee questions about their roles and responsibilities to confirm those claims.
- What was the title of the position they held? What was the position responsible for?
- Could you comment on their competence with systems and new technology?
- Did they have to handle stress, deadlines or change in the role? How did they deal with that?
8. Listen to what’s not being said
When a referee keeps hesitating as they’re answering your questions, it could indicate there are things they are trying not to tell you. This reluctance to share detailed information may suggest that there is a work performance issue you should be made aware of; make sure you enquire further and get them to elaborate on their initial response. Sometimes the referee could just be not used to giving references, so don’t worry too much.
9. Always chase up reference dodgers
Don’t give up if you find a referee hard to get a hold of. Ironically, these can be the most important referees to talk to! If they’re dodging your calls, they may be busy, or they may be avoiding you. Remain tenacious and eventually you’ll uncover the truth of the matter.
10. Always do more than one reference check
You don’t want to rely entirely on the opinion of a single referee. Make sure you talk to at least two referees for each interviewee to make sure you get a well-rounded account of the applicant.
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