Do better reference checks to get that great hire

Workforce Management
JC Cornell

By JC Cornell
August 5, 2020

November 29, 2023

0 min read

Work environments are constantly changing – recent world events have proven just that. Process’ and procedures are evolving, and so too is the way we hire.

However, reference checks will always be an employer’s go-to when hiring. References may even be more important than ever.

While written references are great to have, telephone reference checks are the final verification before an offer of employment is extended.

Many hiring managers, recruiters and HR teams are very comfortable conducting reference checks – they do them daily. For those employers doing them occasionally, reference checks can be a little bit intimidating.

You may not know what to ask or even how to phrase a question to get the answers you are looking for. We can help you with that.

Why do reference checks

Even if someone has a shiny resume and ace their interview, following through with reference checks is incredibly important.

They verify a resume’s accuracy while supplying valuable insight into cultural fit, performance, attitude, work ethic, and how people handle both success and failure in a variety of situations.

All of this is incredibly insightful information that can help you turn a good hire into a great hire.

If someone has worked for over five years and cannot provide at least three professional references, mitigating circumstances aside, you have reasons to be concerned. Even if someone has moved countries, they should be able to provide work email addresses and telephone numbers for previous managers.

Why reference checks by phone are better

Not all reference checks are created equal. While email help with difficult time zone or language barriers, you lose the nuances picked up in a telephone conversation.

Emails can be perfectly crafted, very polite, or allow the reference to think about their answers too long, so you don’t get a straightforward reply.

Telephone conversations eliminate all of that. You get to hear their tone of voice – excited and upbeat, or hesitant and guarded.

The way they answer one question can lead you to a new line of questioning you would never have thought to ask. You develop a sense of rapport with the person. And surprisingly, people tend to be more honest and forthright over the phone than over email.

Phone conversations also allow you to ensure a reference is aware of any relevant privacy and compliance acts in your country. Make sure to consult your HR team if you are unsure of the exact details around these.

Why video call reference checks are even better

Not everyone will be happy to hop on a video call for a reference check. Still, if you can, it’s the way to go. Especially when you start to consider onboarding remote workers.

Video calls allow you get to see a reference's body language while you talk. Do their eyes light up when discussing projects worked on together, or do they cross their arms and become withdrawn?

There is a reason for both of these reactions, and video allows you to react to them in real-time.

How to conduct reference checks

1. Introduce yourself

Always start the call by introducing who you are, the company you work for, and your title. Let the reference know the name of the candidate you are calling about and that this is a reference call.

2. Check your timing works

Make sure that now is a good time to chat. If it isn’t, schedule a time to call back, and be on time when you reconnect with them. Remember that even though you are doing reference checks for a candidate, you are also representing your company. You never know who might be a potential client in the future.

3. Explain you have permission

Ensure they understand that the candidate permitted you to get in contact with them to complete a reference check.

4. Confirm their relationship

Confirm the candidate reported to the reference – especially if this is to be a supervisory reference. Co-worker and character references may be applicable to employers. Still, you want to ensure you know what kind of reference you are conducting before you start asking questions.

5. Check details

Double-check employment dates, position held, and duties performed. Candidates may occasionally embellish their resumes. You want to make sure the experience matches their resume and is accurate.

6. Describe the role

Give a brief description of the position the candidate has applied for. This allows the reference better context for their answers. Ask relevant questions. Give them time to answer your questions, making sure not to put words in their mouth or cut them off.

7. End the call well

Always thank them for their time and honesty at the end of the call.

What types of questions to ask

Not all questions are created equal – especially when you factor in industry standards and technical specificities that positions may entail. You want them to cover a broad range that will give you a clearer understanding of a candidate’s abilities and performance.

By asking the right questions, you will get the answers you are looking for. Generic superficial questions will result in the same types of responses.

Make sure your questions are relevant and insightful. This is the difference between asking “Did you enjoy working with John?”, and “How did John perform in a tight deadline-driven team environment?”

Avoid discriminatory questions

The rules for reference checks are the same as those for interview questions. You shouldn’t be asking anything that doesn’t relate to a candidate's ability to perform in a job.

This goes beyond race, religion, or sexual orientation questions. You need to be aware that even questions about adequate childcare arrangements, or medical issues are also not ok.

That said, it is essential to remember that employment standards differ from country to country. What may be ok to ask in Malaysia may not be ok to ask in Brazil. By staying on top of your country's employment law, you can avoid a lot of problems or any accusations of discrimination.

Corporate policies against providing references

Occasionally you may encounter a reference whose company has a corporate policy against providing references – verbal or written. This is mostly related to legal liability.

Legally a reference needs to be fair and accurate, so contrary to popular belief, an employer can still give a bad reference.

If someone was fired or had poor performance, as long as there is evidence (warning letters or reviews), it is acceptable to give a bad reference. But policy is still policy.

In this situation, it is best to ask if a reference will act as a personal reference, even though they supervised the candidate’s performance.

That way, it can be noted that they are providing their personal opinion rather than speaking on behalf of the company. This will be acceptable for some employers, allowing you to get a reference from a former/current manager.

Surprise revelations in reference checks

Just because a candidate has provided hand-picked references, it doesn’t always mean they will be good. You will be surprised how often you may hear “I can’t believe Mary put me down as a reference. We fired her for theft and fraud.”

You do not want to find yourself in a situation where these revelations come to light after a candidate is hired. Doing your due diligence and completing reference checks in advance will avoid these uncomfortable situations with legal ramifications.

Know that references may talk to your candidate

Assume that anything you reveal to a reference will most probably get passed on to your candidate. You may say, “My colleague thought Luke was quite arrogant, and I am wondering if that was a problem when he worked with you”. Do not be surprised when Luke finds out precisely what was said.

Now imagine the tension if he takes the role but is working with that colleague.  It is important to phrase your questions in a way that will not make a candidate feel bad before they have even started with you.

If you can’t get a reference

Occasionally you will call a reference and find that they have moved on, and no one else in that division worked with your candidate. It is always worthwhile to offer your candidate a chance to provide more references or to get alternative contact details.

Just because they didn’t give you a list of 15 references doesn’t mean they don’t have any more.

Always remember

No matter who you are talking with, reference checks should be conversational. Don’t have your reference questions set in stone.

Be adaptable and listen carefully to every reply. Reference checks provide a wealth of knowledge about a new employee. They will help set up your future working relationship for success.

Ensure you are meeting with candidates who are already referenced

The recruitment team at Airswift knows this, which is why we take such care when doing reference checks.

The information we gather during reference checks helps our clients make informed hiring decisions. We make sure to get as many details as we possibly can.  We love what we do, and can’t wait to help with your next hire.

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