Reference check basics

What to ask when, so you’re sure you’re hiring the best candidate.

The obvious advantage of talking to someone who has worked with a top job contender is that he or she can provide third-party information. Unfortunately, however, it’s not easy today to get references to open up which is why reference check questions are so important.

Job applicants have sued former employers for giving references they viewed as defamatory. Likewise, some companies have sued a new employee’s former firm for not disclosing enough information them when things don’t work out. For their protection, many businesses have adopted a strict “name, rank and serial number” policy.

These difficulties have caused many firms to forego reference checking entirely – an unwise decision for several reasons. Checking candidates’ references is a critical tool for verifying their qualifications and claims about themselves. Here are a few ideas for making your reference checks more productive.

  • Begin at the interview: Let candidates know that if they make the shortlist, you plan to conduct a thorough reference check. While this should prompt the applicant to give honest answers during the interview, jot down any responses you want to confirm with the applicant’s contacts.
  • Do it yourself: No matter how full your diary, resist the urge to delegate reference checking. Since you know best which skills and abilities you seek in a new employee, you’re more likely to persist until you obtain the required information.
  • Ask the right people: Whenever possible, speak to the person’s former manager or co-workers, rather than with human resources personnel at the previous employer.
  • Avoid dangerous questions: Be aware, discrimination laws apply equally to reference checking as to interviewing. You can’t ask about the candidate’s marital status, age, religion, gender, disabilities, ethnicity or other personal matters.

Reference Check Questions

  • Begin with the basics: confirm employment history, job titles, responsibilities and salary. If references are willing to talk further, ask them to describe the person’s strengths and weaknesses, interpersonal skills and ability to work on a team.
  • Ask the reference for other people you might be able to talk to about the candidate. Who’s not on the reference list that would weigh in?
  • Finally, ask if the manager would rehire the applicant.

A lot of candidates can sell themselves well on paper and even in an interview, but it’s their work performance and cultural fit that really counts – be sure to get insights from a reference before you seal the deal.

Want more tips? Read our articles Ultimate reference check checklist and 11 things you should ask every referee.

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