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7 Tips for Reference Check Success

Are Reference Checks a Waste of Time?

Employers commonly ask candidates for references before offering them a job.   Frustration with common problems leaves some thinking, “what a waste of my time!” Here are some solutions that will increase the usefulness of reference checking.

Problem: The candidate is unlikely to put their worst enemies on the list.

Solution:  Don’t just accept what you are given.  Make sure the references are relevant, such as the candidate’s immediate supervisor for the last three jobs.  Calling the candidate’s personal friends and relatives are not a good use of your time.

Problem:  Companies are afraid to give references because they might be sued.

Solution:  Companies are afraid, but people are not.  John from HR will stonewall you, as he is upholding company policy.  Sam the Sales Manager will happily chat with you and tell you anything you want to know.  Call references directly.

Problem:  The reference is closed-mouthed.

Solution:  Warm them up.  Ask a few easy questions, like “how do you know the candidate?”  After you get them talking they will relax.  Most people want to be helpful.  If they are not, call the candidate and get another reference.

Problem:  References tell you only how wonderful the candidate is.

Solution:  Ask open-ended questions, such as “What kind of people did the candidate work best with?  Least well with?”  Asking questions that can be answered “yes” or “no” are least informative.  Also, what is said is sometimes different than how it is said.  Listen to the level of enthusiasm in the reference’s voice, the hesitations.  This is hard to quantify but are also important clues to the puzzle.

Problem:  It takes time to call all those references.  Why can’t I just “friend” the candidate on Facebook and see what they are really like?

Solution:  Reference checking is covered by the same discrimination laws that cover all aspects of the employment relationship.  In other words, only job-related factors should be considered.  What you may find on Facebook may be irrelevant to the job but may influence your hiring decision.

Problem:  I called all the references and took notes.  How do I make sense of all of this?

Solution:  Organize the comments into themes and highlight the ones that are consistent.  If three references from different companies all comment on the candidate’s ability to meet deadlines, that is good information.  So are references that all speak about the candidate leaving their company after a year because of disputes over commission.

If there are any red flags, you can speak to the candidate and address them to your satisfaction.

Problem:  All I got were glowing comments.  Now I’m nervous I’ve missed something!

Solution:  You could have a glowing candidate.  After all, if you are doing reference checks, you must think this candidate is a good one.  Sometimes we are right, after ruling out everything that could be wrong!

The key to conducting a good reference check is to be prepared in advance.  

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