I’m frequently floored by hiring managers who make job offers without taking even one reference check first.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. I know that a lot of people view reference-checking as an old-school hiring practice – it’s just not as cool as the latest shiny new psychometric test, or (at the other end of the spectrum) the interview masquerading as a casual beer with the team down at the local.
‘Old school’ is not normally a term we’d use to describe ourselves at Consult, but in this case, pass us the pinstripes and shoulder pads: we're as old school as they come.
We believe reference checks are possibly the best tool you have in your candidate selection toolbox. There's simply no better way to get some insight into how a person will actually perform on the job – not in an interview, not on a test – than by talking to people who’ve worked with them day in, day out.
The reason reference checks get such a bad rap is because people generally just don't do them right. They don't speak to the right people, and they don't ask the right questions.
Of course, reference checks aren't infallible, but if you do get it right, they're a critical part of the overall assessment puzzle.
Here's how to take a reference check that isn't a complete waste of time:
Make sure you're talking to the right people
This is the most critical step, and it’s where many recruiters and hiring managers go wrong. Of course most people are going to give you the names of referees they know will paint them in the best light. Wouldn’t you?
But to really understand how they perform on the job, you need to speak to their direct manager – not their colleagues, not their boss’s boss, not the receptionist, and certainly not someone from HR (unless they work in HR, that is!). And you need to do this for at least their most recent two jobs (ideally three).
Getting this part right goes right back to the initial interview. When your candidate is talking you through their work history, sketch out a simple org chart for each of their most recent jobs (hopefully you’re doing this anyway – it’s a great way to get some context around the candidate’s job title). Ask for the name and title of their direct manager, and jot it down on your chart.
Then, when you get to the stage where you want to speak to referees, you can cross-check the names your candidate gives you against those you’ve noted on your chart.
Side note: What if the candidate is reluctant to give you the name of a direct manager because they feel they won’t represent them fairly?
Personality clashes and bad bosses happen to all of us. Explain to your candidate that you’re sympathetic, but that it’s your policy to speak to direct managers. Say you’ll work to keep the emotion out of it and that you’ll consider their side of the story (and then be sure you do). Also assure them you’ll also take another couple of references to make sure you have a balanced view.
Set expectations at the beginning of the call
Start the call by thanking the referee for their time. Check they’ll be able to answer questions in detail, and that they have 15 minutes to speak freely (if they don’t, arrange to call them back when they do).
Explain that for the reference check to be useful, you’ll need them to be completely candid.
And assure them that you won’t share the reference with the candidate without their permission.
Get the facts in the referee's own words
Use open-ended questions to check the basic facts – don’t lead the referee by simply asking them to confirm what the candidate has told you.
You’ll want to ask:
- What was your title at the time the candidate was employed?
- What was the candidate’s title?
- Who did the candidate report to? Who else was in the team?
- What dates did the candidate work there? How long has the candidate known you? How much of that period did they directly report to you?
- In brief, what were the candidate’s main responsibilities?
Trust your gut
If something doesn’t sound right, ask the referee to elaborate. If they hesitate, or seem reluctant to answer something in full, don’t let it slide. Even though it might feel awkward, asking more questions when you sense the referee is holding something back is the best way to uncover any issues.
Of course, it’s impossible to do this via email, which is why it’s so important to take a verbal reference wherever possible.
Take a different tack on the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ question
If the candidate was a great employee, then the chances are their referee will want to downplay their weaknesses. But everyone has room to improve, so try rephrasing this question to get a more useful answer. I like to say “If (the candidate) joins our team, what areas should we work on together to round out her skill set and keep her progressing in her career?”
Get some insight into how to manage them
Having a prior manager on the phone is a golden opportunity to get some insight into how to best work with your new team member.
So ask: “What advice do you have for how to get the best out of (the candidate)? Any tips for me as her potential manager?”
All this may seem a bit of work, but if you don't want to risk hiring the wrong person (who does?), or overlooking your next star performer; it's absolutely worth the effort.
Click on this link to download a free copy of the detailed reference check template we use at Consult.