Better Reference Checks Lead to Better Hires

Like many parts of the hiring process, reference checking is a quagmire. Worries about potential legal issues due to negative references often lead employers to provide only basic information to reference checkers.

However, we all agree that checking references is vital before extending a job offer, as past job performance is the best predictor of future job performance.

In this blog, I’ll guide you through eight simple steps to improve your reference-checking process and make better hiring decisions.

Wait until after in-depth interviews. 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 understand the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Take note of these and ask targeted reference questions that provide deeper insights.

Take charge of reference checks yourself. The task of reference checking is best handled by the hiring manager. You possess the necessary expertise to understand and verify technical aspects relevant to the job. Let the human resource and administrative departments focus on confirming basic facts like employment dates, positions held, salary, and education levels.

Prepare your reference questions in advance. Just as you prepare questions for interviews, it’s important to develop a set of reference questions directly tied to the job requirements. For instance, if the position requires keen attention to detail, ask the referee to share a specific example of when the candidate demonstrated exceptional attention to detail.

Concentrate on work-related references. When reaching out to references, prioritize those who have firsthand knowledge of the candidate’s work history. Former supervisors, colleagues, peers, customers, and suppliers are the best sources for objective assessments of the candidate’s work experience. Generally, personal references don’t offer job-related insights and can be omitted.

Verify the candidate’s accomplishments. During interviews, candidates may occasionally exaggerate their achievements to make a positive impression. To ensure accuracy, simply ask the referee to confirm specific statements made by the candidate. For example, you could inquire, “The candidate mentioned achieving a 20% sales growth last year through their leadership. Can you validate this?”

Establish a rapport with the referee. Ideally, you should have a personal connection with the referee, such as a professional colleague, acquaintance, or friend. Individuals who know you personally are more likely to provide honest and valuable information about the candidate. If you don’t have a personal relationship with the referee, take a moment to build rapport before diving into the reference check. Approach the conversation with openness, honesty, courtesy, and professionalism. Since reference checks can be time-consuming, always ask if the referee has a few minutes to spare or propose calling them back later.

Pay attention to non-verbal cues. Sometimes, it’s not just about what the referee says but how they say it. Listen for pauses, changes in voice tone, volume, stammering, or hesitation. These non-verbal cues can offer you valuable insights into the quality of the referee’s response. People often hesitate when sharing negative information, especially during reference checks. Trust your instincts and don’t rush the hiring decision until you feel confident in the accuracy of the information received.

Ask the ultimate question: “Would you re-hire this person?” Pose the question to the referee and carefully listen to their response. Pay attention not only to their answer but also to any non-verbal cues or pauses before replying. A prolonged pause may indicate that the referee would hesitate to re-hire the candidate, which can be a significant factor to consider in your decision-making process.