When considering new hires, it’s important that you follow through and check the references candidates have given you. Sure, it takes time and effort to do a thorough reference check, but think about the costs (and wasted time) associated with hiring the wrong person. It’s worth it to make the extra effort and get it right the first time. Checking references involves more than simply checking off whether the candidate gave you accurate employment dates, etc.
How to Conduct a Thorough Reference Check
- Don’t simply check the references on the candidate’s list. You have a right to call anyone who has employed a job candidate or who knows him or her personally. You don’t have to limit yourself to the list the candidate provided. The only person who’s truly off-limits, is a candidate’s current employer, for obvious reasons.
- Company policies stating that they don’t give references are often broken. Some companies have a formal policy in place stating that they don’t give references outside of confirming employment and dates. While the HR department may stick to this rule, managers often don’t and frequently divulge critical information, despite the rule.
- Potential employers can ask almost anything they want when checking a reference. If you want to know about a job candidate’s attitude, work ethic, projects, duties, or anything like that, ask away. Stay away from asking anything about race, religion, disabilities, etc., but almost anything else is ok.
- Use open-ended questions. Instead of asking “Would you hire this person again?” try asking, “What would you most like to tell me about her?” This makes it impossible to give a simple yes or no answer and forces the person to offer at least something more substantial about the candidate.
- Listen to your candidate. Sometimes references can carry an unfounded negative bias. If a candidate has warned you in advance that one of his references may not speak well of him, ask him why. Listen to the answer carefully. Maybe the supervisor and your job candidate had personal issues that negatively affect the reference. Or, perhaps the supervisor is the type of person who rarely has anything nice to say, especially about former employees – good or bad. If everyone else speaks highly about your candidate, and this one person throws a monkey wrench in, think long and hard before giving it too much weight in the decision process.
- Listen to your reference. Sometimes the reference you speak to says one thing, but means another. How can you make this distinction? With tone, of course. If the reference seems hesitant, yet gives a positive report, or if she seems uncomfortable, it could represent a red flag. If a candidate has truly done a good job, it’s often difficult to miss the enthusiasm of a pleased former employer, even when confirming benign information like employment dates.
- Don’t discount non-human, digital references. Many potential employers nowadays, take advantage of the public nature of social media networks to do a little passive checking into their job candidates. By passively observing what a candidate posts, how he or she engages with followers, and what followers say about the candidate, you glean invaluable insight into character and work ethic.
- Be direct. Ask pointed and direct questions when speaking to a reference. Ask about concrete accomplishments (i.e. increased revenues, decreased expenses) and what makes the candidate stand out among his peers (good or bad). You may want to ask the reference to grade the candidate on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the best possible grade. If the reference says your candidate should receive a grade of 7, directly ask why they think he is a 7 and not an 8 or 6.
- Block out time in your schedule. Don’t try to slip in a call or two during a break or between meetings. You need to have time to delve deeper into specific details during a call, should the need arise. If you’re rushed, you’ll miss something. If you need to make several calls about one candidate, or check references for five or more people, spread it out over several days. Make sure you save time for this and give each reference check the attention it deserves.
If you don’t think you have the personality needed to be assertive and direct during the reference checking process, have someone else do it while you’re in the room. Ask your stand in to take notes about important facts and not try to remember them. You’ll need to have concrete notes to refer to when poring over all the candidates and finally making your choice. This may seem like a lot of work, but it’s worth it to find and hire top-level talent that’s reliable and productive.
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