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Better Reference Checks Lead to Better Hires

By Gerald Walsh ©

Reference checking, like many parts of the hiring process, is a quagmire. Concerns of being sued by former employees, who have been denied employment because of negative references, cause many employers to offer nothing more than “name, rank and serial number” to reference checkers.

Despite these frustrations, all employers agree that checking references is essential before extending an offer of employment to a job candidate. This is because past job performance is the best predictor of future job performance. Here are eight easy steps you can take to improve your reference checking:

Conduct reference checks only after in-depth interviews have been held.

Checking references before the interview can be an effective screening device. However, checking them after the interview is a better selection tool. Only after interviews have taken place, do you have an understanding of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Take note of these and target your reference checking accordingly.

Do not delegate the important task of reference checking.

Most employers agree that references are best checked by the hiring manager. This is the best person within your organization to understand and verify technical matters related to the job. Typically, human resource and administrative departments should only be used to verify basic facts like employment dates, positions held, salary, and education levels

Prepare reference questions in advance.

Like you would have for the interviews, prepare and ask questions that are directly related to the job. For instance, if the position requires the person to be attentive to detail, ask the referee to give you an example of a situation when the candidate was particularly attentive to detail.

Check work-related references only.

Always try to speak with individuals who have prior knowledge of the candidate’s work history. Former bosses, employees, peers, customers, and suppliers are in the best position to give you objective assessments of work experience. Generally personal references can be omitted as they are not likely to provide you with any job-related information.

Verify accomplishments.

During interviews, candidates will sometimes exaggerate their accomplishments in order to make a good impression. You can verify the accuracy of these statements simply by asking: “The candidate told me in the interview that through his leadership, his branch achieved a 20% growth in sales last year. Is this true?”

Build rapport with the referee to get better information.

The best type of referee is one you know personally. Professional colleagues, acquaintances and friends will feel an obligation to you and are more likely to give you an accurate picture of the candidate. If you do not know the referee, try to establish a rapport before beginning. Be open, honest, courteous and professional. Because reference checking takes time, always ask the referee if they have a few minutes to spare before asking the questions or could you call them back at a later time.

Listen for non-verbal cues.

Pauses, voice tone, volume, stammering and hesitation may tell you more about the quality of a referee’s response that what they are actually saying. People are naturally hesitant to say bad things about other people, particularly in a reference. Listen to your gut. Do not hire the person until you are satisfied with the accuracy of the information.

Ask the proverbial question: “Would you re-hire this person?”

And, listen carefully to the answer. What’s not said may in fact tell you more than what is said. A long pause before answering could be a strong indication the referee would hesitate before hiring this person again.

I would like to receive your comments and questions about this topic. Please email me at walsh@geraldwalsh.com and I will respond to you.


Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and writer. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 10,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn