A reference check forms a key part of the hiring process, providing independent insights into a candidate’s past work performance and cultural fit.

There are plenty of candidates who can look outstanding on paper, and might even perform well in an interview, but without the insights of those who have worked with them in the past, your impression of them may be one-sided.

Why perform reference checks?

When you conduct an interview with a candidate, they know they’re part of a competitive process. It is in their best interest to present the best of themselves, so it’s hard to form a realistic, objective view of them without input from a third-party who has worked with them in the past.

This is why we perform reference checks.

Not only can it build a more holistic impression of the candidate you’re interested in hiring, but it can also identify

  • whether a candidate’s claims about qualifications, experience, and previous positions are true;
  • their strengths, weaknesses, and work habits.

Best practice advice

Speaking with referees is not a task to delegate. The hiring manager who interviewed the candidate is best placed to know which skills and abilities are most needed to undertake the role effectively.

But having said that, it’s often helpful to get input from the people involved in the interview with the shortlisted candidate(s) to see if there were any questions they’d like you to ask. For example, was there any information in the initial interview that they would like expanded upon? Did they see any red flags?

Another consideration is whether or not the shortlisted candidate’s current employer knows that they’re applying for a new role. Avoid awkward revelations and conversations by clarifying beforehand.

How to prepare to check someone’s references

The best reference check information comes through verbal communication. A few essential preparation points include:

  • Be prepared to pick up the phone. Letters and emails are easily forgotten or ignored, and this also provides the opportunity to ask spontaneous questions that come up over the course of the conversation. You’re better able to detect any nuance in the referee’s voice, such as enthusiasm – or lack thereof – that can reflect on the candidate.
  • It’s a good idea to find a quiet room in order to carry out the call. Block out at least 30 minutes in your agenda or calendar, though some calls will take less than that.
  • You may want to bring your notes taken from the interview with the candidate, as well as any notes from colleagues that interviewed with you. Prepare your questions in advance – more on that later.
  • If you have not already requested the names and contact details of your candidate’s referees, now is the time to do so.

Should you allow the candidate to select their own referees?

A common question is whether or not to allow candidates to decide who they want you to speak with.

That’s an individual decision, but it is advised that you consider the questions you’d like to ask the referee, and then ask the person best-suited to answer them.

For example, are you interested in learning more about their leadership qualities? Then you may want to speak with people that they have managed in the past. Do you want to know more about how they work under tight deadlines and high pressure? Then their former boss may be in the best position to discuss this.

Note: Check in with legal requirements first

One important consideration prior to checking references is the legalities surrounding such a conversation.

According to the NSW Government’s Public Service Commission, reference checks are a legal requirement as part of the pre-employment screening process, particularly for certain jobs. Note that they are not the only kind of pre-employment screening check; such as Working With Children or Criminal Record background checks.

As a legal requirement, there are strict rules surrounding what you can and cannot ask: unless they are essential requirements for the position for which you are hiring, you cannot, for example, ask about the candidates age, marital status, age, or disabilities. Questions of a personal nature are also not allowed.

How to conduct a reference check

Reference check calls should be low pressure with the aim of putting the referee at ease, so it’s up to you to set the tone from the start of the call.

Easy questions about dates of the candidate’s employment with the referee’s company and questions about the job they performed are good ways to open up the conversation.

Once you’ve confirmed these details, move onto more substantial topics that will cover a potential employee’s capabilities. Describe the role the candidate is being considered for, and mention the challenges specific to the role you anticipate them having to work with. This will provide the referee with context, but it may also spur them to share their thoughts unprompted.

Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions about the candidate’s strengths and/or weaknesses, and any other points you want to clarify, but try to do so upbeat and with sensitivity. Open ended, specific questions are key here.

As the discussion progresses, you may find that you can bring up concerns you may have, but pay attention to the way you phrase your questions. For example, you may have some concerns regarding the candidate’s ability to manage tight project milestones, so you may want to ask, “The candidate doesn’t have much experience managing deadlines under pressure. How do you think they’ll handle this challenge?”

If you’ve got your list of questions, don’t be afraid to go off script if the opportunity presents itself. The aim of the discussion is to provide a fuller picture of the candidate in question, and to gain a clearer understanding of how they will perform in the role to which they’ve applied. The more information you have, the better.

Finally, as you wrap up your call, remember to thank the referee for their time.

It’s easy to read into referee’s tone of voice, but it’s important you stick to the facts and not the tone in which they were delivered. There are any number of reasons someone may sound a certain way over the phone that doesn’t reflect on the candidate.

Sample reference check questions

Some standard questions you may want to open up with include:

  • How do you know the candidate?
  • How long did the candidate work for your organisation?
  • What type of work did the candidate do?

Then move on to more substantial questions:

  • Can you describe some of the candidate’s weaknesses/strengths?
  • How well did the person work as part of a team?
  • What kind of people did the candidate have a more difficult time working with?
  • Was the candidate punctual?
  • Would you rehire the candidate in the future?

Don’t forget to bring up soft skills:

  • How motivated is the candidate?
  • Do they exhibit empathy?
  • How do they handle challenged and failure?
  • Are they creative?

Remember, a reference check should never be just a formality, or just another box you need to tick. They should be about forming a more holistic picture of the candidate, and should be taken seriously.

After all, the more information you have at your disposal, the better placed you are to assess their suitability for the role and the organisation.

It is a crucial tool that can reveal what the candidate is really like in the workplace, and whether they’re the right one for the job.

Completed your reference check and now need to make your hiring decision?