How To Check References (& Get Useful, Revealing Info)

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From asking the right questions to avoiding common mistakes: make reference checks a valuable part of your selection process by following this advice.

Recruiting Social team member talking on the phone

Reference checks are not a waste of time. Done well, they can be one of the most valuable parts of the selection process and provide hiring managers with a wealth of accurate information about a potential hire. In fact, in a 2010 OfficeTeam survey, managers said they remove more than one out of five candidates from consideration after speaking to their references.

But here’s the thing: what does “done well” actually mean when doing reference checks?

Three of Recruiting Social’s recruiters – well-practiced in the art of screening candidates and speaking with past employers, rest assured – shared their best advice:

“You can interpret people’s reactions better in a call.”

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Get the logistics right

“Aim to do three references, minimum two,” says Vancouver-based recruiter Lara Pinto. “Always do them over the phone, unless they specifically ask to answer your questions by email. You can interpret people’s reactions better in a call.” Los Angeles-based recruiter Angel Lawler concurs: “Talking by phone is preferable because it helps get the reference into a candid conversation so you can gauge the accuracy of their answers.”

Vancouver-based recruiting manager Danielle Marchant notes: “typically, references will be in senior or managerial positions – busy people. Don’t just call them without notice; scheduling a call time is best practice.” Adds Angel, “during your call, acknowledge the fact that they are taking time out of their busy schedule to speak with you.”

She also suggests taking notes as you speak to references: “Jot down details and feelings you can refer to later on. It also helps to compare notes after all the references have been checked so you can see patterns or inconsistencies.”

“Have the questions you want to ask laid out ahead of time.”

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Ask well-planned questions

“Ideally, have the questions you want to ask laid out ahead of time. This allows you to stay on track, and ask precise, purposeful questions,” says Danielle. Angel recommends customizing your questions for each candidate: “I prefer to create unique reference questionnaires based on the candidates’ interviews. I like to formulate innocuous sounding questions that get at the heart of any objections or hesitance the hiring manager may have.”

Common reference check questions:

  • What is your relationship with, or relation to, the candidate?
  • Would you recommend the candidate?
  • What did they contribute to your company’s growth (or other organizational objectives)?
  • What are some of their strengths? Where do they need to improve?
  • What would their coworkers say about them?
  • Would you rehire the candidate in the future?

“Don’t forget that every reference is a networking opportunity.”

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Avoid these reference-checking mistakes

“Don’t be satisfied with generalized answers to your questions,” says Danielle, “dig into the details of the individual’s work performance history. This is your chance to get real intel from someone who oversaw the candidate in a work environment.”

“Watch out that your questions don’t sound repetitive,” suggests Lara, “if they are too similar, or if you’re just rewording the same question over and over, you’ll sound robotic and signal to the reference that you’re not paying attention. They might not be as candid with you.”

Angel advises not to treat reference checks as just a formality: “Don’t forget that every reference is a networking opportunity; every relationship is important. If you speed right through with a quick-fire 20 questions, you could miss a great conversation.”

Christian De Pape, Recruiting Social’s Head of Marketing and Content

About the author

Christian De Pape is Head of Marketing and Content at Recruiting Social. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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