How to Do a Reference Check the Right Way

Reference checks can provide additional information about a candidate’s history and qualifications, and how to best support them if you choose to hire them.

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Here’s how to conduct a reference check — and why you shouldn’t skip it

We all know the feeling. You’re excited. It’s love at first sight and you’ve finally found “the one” after a long and exhaustive search. That is, you’ve found the perfect candidate! You’re eager to make the offer and don’t want to waste time following up with their reference because you know that the best candidates get off the market quickly.

As tempting as it may be to skip this final step, conducting a reference check well can give you important and meaningful data about the candidate and should not be skipped.

Here’s what you need to know when it comes to doing a meaningful reference check.

What is a reference check and why does it matter?

A reference check is typically the final step in the recruitment process before the formal offer to the candidate goes out. In this check, the employer will contact the candidate’s previous employer to verify the information which the candidate has shared in their interview. Through this conversation, you can also learn more about the candidate’s history and qualifications. This extra step can give you meaningful information to inform your hiring decisions and can be considered as an additional data point on the candidate.

It’s important to conduct this step of the process because the natural bias we have towards or against certain people can lead us to make the wrong decisions or judgments. Conducting this final reference check can help you uncover any vital information about the candidate that may have been overlooked.

Conducting this final reference check can help you uncover any vital information about the candidate that may have been overlooked.

Reference checks can also give you useful information about how to best support the individuals you’re considering for the role. By speaking with someone who’s worked with the candidate before, you can gauge more about their strengths and weaknesses and what they might need to be successful in their potential new roles.

But I’m really busy, can I just skip it?

While you may not see the value of a formal reference check, you could find yourself in a legal predicament should you choose to skip it. Jayshree Joshi, a talent acquisition expert reminds us that “If this person was terminated for integrity-related issues — for example, theft or harassment — and you hire them and they repeat the same offense, you fail as an employer to protect your employees. In a worst-case scenario, your employees can also pursue legal action against you as an employer for not doing your due diligence by performing a reference check.”

Performing reference checks helps protect you, your employees, and the organization.

“In a worst-case scenario, your employees can also pursue legal action against you as an employer for not doing your due diligence by performing a reference check.”

How to conduct a reference check

Employers usually conduct reference checks through phone or video chat. Oftentimes, employers will make an offer to a candidate under the condition that everything in their reference check checks out. This can be done by your internal HR team or services like SkillSurvey or Backcheck who conduct reference checks on your behalf.

Before conducting the reference check, you must have consent from the candidate to reach out to their reference.

Whoever is doing the reference check should make sure to dig deep and establish how the contact knows the candidate and under what capacity they have worked together. For example, determine whether this person was a direct peer, their manager, or simply a friend in the organization.

As the person conducting the reference check, introduce yourself at first and tell the reference a bit about why you’re calling and let them know that the information you discuss is confidential. Go in with positive intent around the candidate. If you go into the call “looking for blood,” the reference will pick up on this and will be less likely to share openly with you.

What questions you can’t ask

Questions that can lead to any form of discrimination should never be asked. These typically refer to questions involving age, race, sex, religion, marital status, or national origin. All questions you ask will be considered “on the record,” so be thoughtful and professional to ensure you are not asking anything inappropriate.

Sample questions for reference checks

Consider asking some of the following questions:

  1. What was their job title and dates of employment?
  2. What projects have you worked on together and what was the candidate’s impact on the overall project?
  3. Can you share an example of when this person has gone above and beyond in their role?
  4. What advice would you have for their new manager?
  5. Would you rehire the person?
  6. What was this person’s reason for leaving?

Ask open-ended questions, but make sure they are specific. Joshi recommends focusing your questions on objective behaviors and avoid digging into their personal opinions around the person. Focus on the facts! For more ideas on the questions to ask, view this blog from the LinkedIn Talent Blog.

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