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How to Make the Most out of Your Reference Checks

By Andrew Jensen, Business Advisor

Checking the references of potential employees is a necessary step in the hiring process. Soliciting the opinions of the candidate’s previous employers and coworkers is a great way to gain insight into that person’s attitude and work ethic, and the information you glean from a reference check can make or break a candidate’s status as a new hire. However, many employers are not utilizing the full potential of the reference check and are not using the opportunity to learn anything new. Follow the tips below to optimize efficiency with your reference checks and to ensure that they are informative and productive:

Check references early.

Too often, employers don’t call candidates’ references early enough in the hiring process. Ideally, you should perform your reference checks well before you begin the process of making any decisions. Many employers only check a candidate’s references in a cursory manner after they’ve already decided to offer the individual the job, but in a way, this almost defeats the purpose of a reference check. If you’ve already made a decision, why waste your time just to validate it?

When you complete your reference checks only after you’ve already decided (officially or unofficially) to make the candidate a job offer, you risk falling into the trap of self-affirmation. In this situation, the old saying “You only hear what you want to hear” applies in full force. If you’ve made up your mind to hire the individual, you’ll likely place value only on those comments that affirm your current position and disregard the ones that oppose it, meaning that even if the candidate’s references paint a less than ideal picture, if you’ve already decided they’re the best fit for the job, you’re unlikely to take the negative remarks to heart. This subconscious filtering of ideas is known as the confirmatory bias, and it’s an all too common a problem in the hiring process. Therefore, it’s best to complete reference checks earlier than you might be used to, and you’ll usually want to complete them before the interview or use them to supplement what you’ve collected during the first interview to decide if the candidate is worthy of further review.

Ask open-ended questions.

When speaking with a candidate’s references, it’s best to go beyond the basics. Of course you’ll need to verify dates and employment information, but since you’ve already made the call, why not use references as the gold mine of information that they are? Try asking references open-ended questions that can help clue you in as to whether or not the candidate is going to be a good fit at your company. Consider these example questions:

  • What are the candidate’s strengths?
  • What contributions has the candidate made to your company?
  • What is your overall impression of him or her?
  • What are three areas in which the candidate could improve?*

These types of questions can give you new insight into a candidate’s skill set, personality, and work ethic, and they’re a great way to use reference checks to your full advantage.

*Note: Open ended questions like these are a great way to force references to answer honestly. Oftentimes, references are unwilling to say anything negative about the candidate because they do not want to hurt the person’s chances of getting a job with your company. Therefore, asking,“Is there anywhere that the candidate needs improvement?” (a yes-or-no question) is highly likely to be met with a simple “No, not that I know of.” Phrasing the question in such a way, however, where the reference is forced to choose three areas where the candidate could improve helps you to obtain more honest feedback.

Ask references to recommend additional references.

If you feel it’s necessary, never hesitate to ask the reference to direct you to another individual who has experience with your candidate. Remember, the references your candidate gave you were all hand-picked to portray them in a positive light, and in some instances, this could mean you aren’t getting the whole story. If you feel the need, ask a reference to point you towards another reference, one not provided by your candidate. Remember, though, you aren’t doing this to disqualify your candidate; you’re simply trying to ensure that the way they represented themselves is consistent with the way they are viewed by others.

Reference checks have the potential to be one of the best ways for you to gain information about your candidate, and if you only use them to verify dates of employment, you’re missing out on a wealth of information about your candidate that could have helped you to make a smarter hiring decision.