Reference Checks: When, Who, How and Why

If you’re like most hiring managers, you’re not getting much out of your reference checks besides hearing how great the person is. The following will provide you with an overview on how to make these calls a productive component to your hiring process, including when to conduct them, who you should be speaking with, how you should conduct these calls and why, i.e., how much you should take the refernce checks into consideration when making your final hiring decision.

reference checks

When to conduct reference checks:

If you’re like most people, you are most likely conducting your reference checks after you have completed all of your interviews and are just about ready to make a job offer, which is exactly what we used to do at Excelsior. But then a crazy thing happened: a candidate provided us with references who did not have complimentary things to say about him and even stated that they would not re-hire him or recommend that we hire him. We were puzzled: what kind of person would give us a negative reference? Then it happened to us again. And again. I realized that we were wasting a lot of time (and money) by waiting unit the end of the hiring process to conduct these checks. Now, we conduct them right after the first interview (assuming there will be a second).

The exception to this rule is in regards to their current employer. Unless you have specific permission from the potential candidate, never call their current supervisor or anyone else at their current employer. This could put a candidate’s employment at risk. Make an offer contingent upon an acceptable reference from their current supervisor, and then contact this individual after the offer has been accepted.

Who to conduct reference checks with:

A common mistake managers often make is asking candidates to choose their references. Instead, you should tell the candidates that you wish to speak with the people who actually supervised them. These are the people who have the information you need in order to make a better hiring decision

How to conduct reference checks:

The following lists the basic steps to calling up a potential candidate’s references. Please pay special attention to #5:

    1. Identify yourself, your title and organization name, and tell them you are calling about a reference for a candidate you are considering.
    2. Ask if now is a good time to talk or whether they would rather reschedule the call for a later time.
    3. Make sure they understand that you have the consent from the applicant and that all responses will remain confidential.
    4. Give a very brief description of the role you are considering the applicant for, so that they can comment in context.
    5. Explain to the reference that you already know what a great person the applicant is and that you are aware of his or her strengths and positive qualities, so you’re NOT looking for them to tell you more about this. Tell them the reason you are calling is because you are strongly considering offering the candidate the job and want them to help you understand how best to communicate, motivate and help the new hire grow. Then ask specific questions about each of the above items.
    6. Give them time to answer your questions. Let them respond, and do not cut them off or put words in their mouth.

How much should the reference check weigh in on your final decision?

Look at it this way: a candidate who interviews with average success and has exceptional references may be a much better hire than one who interviews exceptionally well and has average references. Remember, you’re hiring the person to be successful in the role, not to be a great interviewer. Assuming you’ve asked the “right” questions as outlined above, the reference checks should be an essential component to your hiring decision.

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