3 Tips on Checking References

Aug 24 2015

Checking references is a great way to learn your candidate’s work history and potential. How much weight should a reference carry? What questions should you ask and how much do you push back? What kind of information do you look for? We get asked these questions regularly and some of the information below may surprise you. Here are 3 thoughts on checking references:

1. Not All References Are Created Equal
Would you be surprised to learn that we frequently have candidates who list relatives as a reference? You’re probably either thinking, “wow I can’t believe that!” or “are you not supposed to do that?” Not all references hold the same merit. Is your candidate’s Aunt Martha going to tell you that he has a problem with punctuality? Probably not. Is his best friend going to tell you that the real reason he left his last job was because he was caught falsifying his time sheet? Your goal in checking references is to seek out PROFESSIONAL references. You want to look for people who have worked with your candidate in professional environment and can attest to his work ethic in a non-biased way. Ask the reference point blank to tell you how he knows your candidate. If the resume says John Smith was your candidate’s former manager, but when you ask John, he says “oh I’m his neighbor” then you already have your reference completed and you’ve established something important: your candidate is dishonest.

2. Put the Reference to the Test
You’ve got your candidate’s reference on the phone and so far the details are lining up. What else do you ask? If your candidate was smart, she picked people who are going to give her a glowing reference. It’s a good idea to get an idea of the qualifications and character of the reference giver—this lets you feel more confident believing them when they tell you that Suzie is never late, gets along with everyone, and is an excellent communicator. Asking questions about the reference giver’s job title, number of direct reports, and length of tenure will help you determine if this is a reference that can be trusted. Look them up on LinkedIn too and don’t be afraid to ask a tough question to test the waters. Something like, “Tell me about a time Suzie made a mistake at work. How did she handle it?”

3. Come Away With Information That’s Valuable to You
Beware of the “yes” man. If you’re asking questions and getting a lot of “yes” answers but very few details, don’t be afraid to push for more specific responses. If you asked, “Tell me about how Suzie takes constructive feedback” and the reference says, “She takes it well” don’t hesitate to ask them to elaborate. If you get hesitation or a vague response, the reference really isn’t doing you any favors. Know how to push for information that’s valuable and relevant to you.

The goal of checking references is to ensure your candidate is portraying an accurate depiction of her skills and that she’s going to be a gem to work with. Anyone can call their former co-worker who’s also their best friend and say, “Will you give me a reference?” As a hiring manager, you want to recognize a bad reference and know how to get as much useful information as possible from a good reference. You’ll avoid a lot of stress later by screening thoroughly before you hire.


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