Why reference checks are more important than you think
On the surface, reference checks are seen as a way to close out the hiring process.

But done well, a reference check can go beyond being a simple tick-the-box exercise to confirm a candidate worked at a particular place.

We asked Nicole Gorton, a Robert Half director to explain why reference checks are so important and how to get the most out of them.

The benefit of reference checks

It’s natural that during the interview process, candidates want to present the best version of themselves, making it tricky to form a realistic and objective opinion. This is where reference checks can be very valuable.

“A third-party who has worked with the candidate in the past can provide context and additional insight,” Gorton says. “They can help build a holistic impression of the candidate.”

The value of reference checks really comes into play when exploring a candidate’s soft skills. “As well as verifying whether a candidate’s claims about qualifications, experience and previous positions are true, you can also evaluate strengths, weaknesses, work habits and soft skills such as leadership or teamwork,” Gorton says.

“These more intangible aspects can often be more effectively evaluated by those around them rather than relying on the candidate’s own self-awareness.”

What to do before you speak to a referee

Before you contact a referee, it’s important to do the following:

  • If the candidate’s current employer is a referee, check what they know
    Candidates don't have to list their current employer as a referee, and frequently don't as it may create a challenging situation. But if the current employer is put forward as a referee, it's always good to check with the candidate what the employer is aware of.

    “When pursuing references, the hiring manager should always confirm with the candidate whether their current employer knows they’re applying for a new role,” Gorton says. “This avoids awkward situations or revelations.”

  • Decide on the best form of contact
    Gorton advises conducting reference checks by phone. “This provides the opportunity to ask spontaneous questions that come up over the course of the conversation,” she says. “And you can also detect any nuances such as enthusiasm – or lack thereof – that may reflect on the candidate.”

  • Determine who you want to speak to
    There’s often debate related to whether candidates should choose their own referees, because (understandably) they want to present themselves in the best light.

    “The hiring manager should identify the people best suited to the kinds of questions they want to ask and then work with the candidate to identify suitable individuals,” Gorton advises.

    “So, if you’re interested in understanding a candidate’s leadership abilities, request to speak to someone the candidate has managed in the past. If you have reservations about the candidate’s ability to work collaboratively, then seek out a peer the individual worked closely alongside.”

3 key questions to ask referees

Asking the right type of questions will help you make an informed decision. Start with the dates of the candidate’s employment and practical questions about their role. Then, once the details are confirmed, describe the position the candidate is being considered for before asking open-ended questions, such as:

  1. Can you describe some of the candidate’s weaknesses/strengths?
    “This is an open-ended question that evaluates the candidate’s capabilities,” Gorton says. “The response can be cross-checked with the candidate’s own responses in an interview to identify any discrepancies or highlight areas for development.”

  2. How well did the person work as part of a team?
    Teamwork and collaboration are often crucial to the success of a business. According to Gorton, teamwork is best assessed by colleagues or direct team members because it’s a skill that relies on others’ opinions and experiences.

  3. How do they handle challenges and failure?
    Understanding how a candidate navigates difficulties gives insight into how they may approach a new position and unfamiliar terrain. “If there’s a specific project the candidate is likely to be involved in, consider asking how the referee thinks the candidate would deal with challenges that could arise from that project,” Gorton says. Don’t be afraid to be specific. 

You also shouldn’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions to the answers you’re provided. This is your opportunity to build the best picture you can about a potential future employee.

What not to do when it comes to reference checks

While you will want to note down any suggested areas for improvement raised during the reference check, Gorton says it’s crucial not to automatically treat constructive criticism as a red flag.

“Every applicant has areas to improve and a good reference check will help identify these points, which you can then evaluate against the strengths and aptitudes the candidate brings to the role,” she says.

Reference checks shouldn’t be just a formality. Done correctly, they offer hirers an opportunity to critically evaluate the skills, experience and characteristics of a potential employee. Once you know how to approach reference checks and the right questions to ask, you’ll be able to get the most out of the process.

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