Are your reference checks up to scratch? Make sure you get the most out of them with these tips.

You’ve found ‘the one’. They have all the skills and experience you’re looking for, and to top it off, a great personality and you really ‘clicked’ in the interview.

But before you get carried away organising their phone, computer and welcome morning tea you know you have one last thing to do before you can tick off all the ‘new hire’ boxes – that pesky reference check.

You know you can’t afford to get this hire wrong, you only have a small team and if this person isn’t the right ‘fit’ the impact on your team and work environment could be huge. So, you really need to get the most out of this reference check to make sure your candidate’s just as good as you think they are, but aside from asking the stock-standard questions what else can you do?

  • Make sure you’re talking to the right people! Sounds simple but I’m sure every recruiter can give you an example of a candidate who’s provided false or just irrelevant referees. You want to make sure the referee was a direct supervisor/manager who worked closely with the candidate and can provide detailed information around their work performance.
  • Take the time to prepare your questions. Refer back to the interview with the candidate and look for areas in which you would like to gain more information eg what attributes or experience is going to be important in the role they’re applying for – this is your opportunity to see if they really are up to the task. Also, ensure your questions are specific to that role and address both technical ability and personality traits.
  • Arrange to take the reference at a time suitable to the referee. You’ll get more out of the reference if the referee is focused on the conversation and has allowed sufficient time to answer your questions in detail. If you catch the referee off-guard what you’ll often get is a very quick and rushed reference that doesn’t provide the detail you need to make an accurate assessment.
  • Don’t be afraid to probe further. This is paramount if you’re sensing a hesitation in providing detailed information. In our experience referees who aren’t being all that forthcoming with information generally fall into three categories;
  1. They have genuine concern around the suitability of the candidate based on their experience with them – in which case you usually              find out by asking the question “hypothetically, would you re-employ them?” This will tell you everything you need to know!
  2. They have genuine concern around the implications of providing a reference so aren’t willing to expand on their answers.
  3. They’re just not ‘a talker.’ Providing “yes/no” answers and giving very little information might just be their personality.

In these instances you really need to assess how much of it is it about the referee’s personality, and how much is about the experience they had with the candidate. The second reference you take will be absolutely critical – if it’s not top notch, I’d be asking  the candidate for a 3rd referee.

  • Be suspicious! Cross check the information the candidate has provided throughout the interview process with the referee e.g. “What was their reason for leaving their role?”. So often a referee has a completely different take on why the candidate has left the organisation..! Other things to check include; their level of responsibility, day to day duties, what their relationship was like with management and colleagues etc. etc.  If you go into the reference looking for discrepancies and don’t find them, that’s great! But if you do, you’re best to know now. You certainly don’t want your organisation to end up in the media for not doing your due diligence!
  • Trust your gut. If you’ve completed the references but still can’t shake the feeling that you’re not getting the full story or that something isn’t quite right, listen to your gut! Your options are to either probe further with the candidate to see if you can satisfy your concerns, or it might be time to look for other suitable candidates and remove this candidate from the process altogether.

When done correctly, reference checks are a valuable tool for assessing a candidate’s suitability for a job. And, there’s nothing more satisfying than completing reference checks which confirm that the candidate you thought was ‘the one’ is exactly that!


Written by Melanie Mansfield