How to Conduct an Effective Reference Check

Effective Reference CheckYou’ve got an urgent requirement to fill a position. You’re far along in your hiring process and think you’ve found someone who can do the job. You can’t wait to get your new employee on board so you can meet the needs of your clients.  Pause, take a breath, and ensure you conduct an effective reference check before you make a job offer.

Why should you conduct an effective reference check?

The reference check is your opportunity to:

  • Verify a candidate’s employment history;
  • Gain insight into a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses;
  • Confirm information provided by the candidate during the interview; and
  • Talk to someone who previously worked with the candidate to learn about their work habits.

The purpose of a reference check is to obtain an evaluation of a candidate from someone who has previously worked with them. Ask the reference behavioural-based questions, just like you (hopefully) did in the job interview, to get objective information.  Use the reference to verify information provided by the candidate during the interview.

Follow these key steps when conducting an effective reference check:

1. Ask the candidate for their work references

  • Your interest is to talk to people who previously managed and worked with the candidate so they can vouch for his/her work.
  • Preferred references are the candidate’s current or previous manager.
  • If a current or previous manager is not possible, other alternatives could be:
    • Other, indirect managers with whom the candidate worked
    • Co-workers or team members
    • Teachers & professors (for students)
    • Volunteer coordinators (for candidates with limited work experience)
  • Obtain a minimum of 3 references from the candidate.
  • Personal references will likely not have worked with the candidate previously, would likely be extremely biased, and would only be able to provide a character reference not a work reference.

2. Prepare the questions you will ask the references

  • Common questions to ask include:
    • Confirmation of employment information
    • Familiarity with candidate’s work
    • Comments on work performance
    • Comments on required technical & soft skills required for the position
    • Areas of strength and weakness
    • Areas of concern
    • Interest in working with candidate again
  • Similar to the approach in the job interview, ask the references for behavioural-based examples from the candidate’s work history to verify the candidate’s skills and experience. For example: “Describe a difficult project that NAME had to manage and the problems s/he ran into. How did s/he resolve the problems?”

3. Contact the references to arrange a phone meeting

  • Budget a minimum of 15 minutes per reference to conduct a thorough reference check.
  • Ideally, you are able to have a conversation with the reference.

4. Overcome obstacles

  • You would hope that your candidates have advised their references that you may be calling and that they have already resolved any obstacles with the reference prior to your call.
  • The candidate should provide up-to-date contact information.  If a candidate has not done so, it may be that the reference is not a particularly strong reference.  Or, it may be a reflection of that candidate’s lack of attention to detail.
  • If your candidate provides a reference whose company has a policy of not providing references for previous employees, ask the reference if they will act as a personal reference rather than providing a reference on behalf of the company.  This approach will work for some employers and you will still be obtaining information from a current or former manager.
  • If talking to the reference is not possible, another alternative would be to email your questions to the candidate and have them email a response back.  Though not ideal, this approach may work for references who are in different time zones, who are extremely busy, or if there is a language barrier.
  • If the candidate does not have local references and can only provide foreign references, we still recommend contacting the overseas reference via phone or email.

5. Evaluate reference checks

  • After all your reference checks have been completed, determine if the information provided by the references confirms or contradicts your impression of the candidate.
  • Ideally, the reference checks will confirm that the candidate is a strong candidate.
  • If the reference checks raise concerns about the candidate that you feel make him/her no longer ideal, you can then proceed to another candidate.  Better to find out about concerns at this stage rather than after the candidate starts working for you.
  • If you cannot obtain any useful information from the reference besides a confirmation of employment and position, advise the candidate and ask them for additional references.

6. Make the final decision

  • Make your final decision as to the best candidate for your position, having taking into account:
    • The resume
    • The phone interview
    • The interview
    • Reference checks & other checks
  • Make an offer.

Never hire anyone without conducting an effective reference check.  You would be surprised how often we uncover damaging information about the candidate from their self-selected references. “NAME gave me as a reference? That’s very strange – NAME left because they were fired/charged with fraud/stole company equipment…” You get the idea. We often get called to assist with the termination of an employee that could have been easily avoided had all the steps of the hiring process been followed, which includes conducting reference checks. Don’t take a shortcut by avoiding reference checks. It will likely cost you more time, money and headaches later than conducting an effective reference check up front.

For human resources solutions on how to conduct an effective reference check for your small business, please contact Vancouver-based Clear HR Consulting, or check out the Hiring Employees module of our HR How-To Series for Small Business.

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