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How to get the most out of your reference checks

Reference checks can feel like you are going through the motions to check one final box before signing a great candidate - but with the right structure and questions, reference checks can be a powerful tool in your recruitment toolbox. Here are our top tips on how you can get the most value out of that final step.

Many boxes need to be checked during the hiring process to feel confident that you found the right candidate for the job - and by the time you are at the final check box, you are ready to get your candidate signed and onboarded. But before you sign and onboard your new colleague, there is one final and essential step of the process: the reference check. Unfortunately, conducting a reference check seems like a final formality that you have to do before signing a great candidate.

Although about 95% of employers have shown that reference checks are used in the hiring process, many fail to see the value it brings to the table. To make matters worse, reference checks are known to be less statistically reliable and more biased than other candidate assessment methods. Low reliability, combined with the signing closing in, can make it tempting to skip or rush through reference checks to speed up the process.

However, the reality is that when reference checks are conducted with structure and sound questions based on previous interview findings, they can prove to be extremely valuable - and should hold weight in the decision-making process as with any other recruitment stage.

This article will focus on traditional reference checks and guide you on how to get the most out of them!

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Known as the more common way of conducting reference checks, traditional reference checks require that the candidate provide a certain number of referees (usually around three) whom they can contact directly. These referees are people with whom the candidate has worked close enough to provide relevant insight into how the candidate works in their current work environment, what motivates and demotivates them, how they interact with their colleagues, etc.

Here are a few ways to get value out of your reference checks instead of just becoming another box to tick!

  1. Take time to structure your questions. If your company does not have a reference check template, start here. Compile a list of questions which cover the following areas: the candidates’ primary responsibilities and job title, their unique skills and qualities, what training they could have to benefit them, what motivates them, how they respond to feedback, how they work with others, would you rehire them, etc. You can check out this brief guideline we have created on Notion.
  2. Pick up the phone. Emailing a survey to the referees is very convenient, but let’s face it, this method will not yield what we are searching for. Conducting reference checks in writing may not allow us to get a complete picture of the candidate, affecting the reliability. The best way is to speak with someone directly over the phone or, better yet, in person.
  3. Make sure the referee has time. It may be that the referee can only provide you with 5 minutes to give some feedback on the candidate. Should this be the case, ask the referee to reschedule for another day when they are less busy. This is so that we can have enough time to measure what we need to measure to get an accurate overview of the candidate.
  4. Always ask how the referee knows the candidate. Is it someone who managed the candidate for three years, or is it their best friend? Until we ask, we will never know. Candidates often pick people as referees who cannot comment on their skills and performance. In this case, the reference check would become unreliable as it will shed little to no light on the candidate.
  5. Show fondness for the candidate and describe the role. Expressing respect for the candidate is essential as the candidate chose these referees. It will help them to feel more comfortable in responding to questions. It is also necessary to describe the role the candidate might potentially be filling before diving into how the candidate could contribute. Once the referee has a good understanding of the role, start asking questions such as “What strengths of (candidate name) will be conveyed in this role?” or “What challenges might this role present to (candidate name)?”.
  6. Never show any skepticism toward the candidate. This could make the referee feel uncomfortable, and if they think they have loyalties to the candidate, they may be less reluctant to talk constructively about them. It would also not be a good look for the company conducting the reference check as the referee might mention it to the candidate, which could cause you to lose out on the candidate joining.
  7. Focus on concerns which still need to be addressed. Speak to all of your colleagues who have been a part of the interview process. Was there any information they wanted clarification on? Perhaps they have some concerns? For example, those who interviewed (candidate name) may feel they are overstating some of their accomplishments. An excellent way to tackle this is to ask open-ended questions such as “Could you tell me about (candidate name) ’s responsibilities in her role as a recruiter?”. This is an excellent way to cross-check what the candidate has to say versus what the referee has to say and see if there is a link between the two.
  8. Keep it to the point. We often come across specific referees who like to babble on with compliments about the candidate. It is essential to communicate that we stay clear and to the point to focus on what needs to be answered. For example, “It’s great that (candidate name) was such a great colleague, but can you tell me a little bit more about why she was?”
  9. Avoid interrupting the referee and listen closely. Allow time for the referee to communicate what is necessary to answer the question presented to them. Pay attention to cues such as hesitations in the referee’s response or specific words they may use to describe the candidate, like “(candidate name) was a fairly good recruiter”. The referee’s tone is also essential to notice throughout the reference check, as it could change when talking about certain aspects of the candidate. This is yet another reason why reference checks done by phone calls or in-person are better than surveys.

Now that the reference checks are complete, did you notice any discrepancies? Be it about the candidate’s image and what the referees mention or differences between referees in general, the best way to address any discrepancies is to take time, go back to the candidate and ask them to clarify. In most cases, we find that some information can be misinterpreted/misunderstood, and it is nothing to worry about.

The goal of reference checks is to develop a complete picture of the candidate in question by cross-checking the information obtained during the hiring process with what the referees say about them. The information from the referees should allow us to acquire a deeper understanding of the candidate. Especially in the wake of COVID-19, face-to-face interviews have been less common, making reference checks in these cases even more important. This is because there might not be things we notice in a remote interview which may be revealed during the check.

The fact that we could write an entire blog post about reference checks shows how much thought can go into it! Of course, every organization may conduct them differently, including who will lead them and if they are only undertaken for specific roles. However, by using these tips to get the most out of the reference checks, you will feel more self-assured in the choice you and your hiring team have made and be able to present an offer to the candidate you think is your new star employee!

Additional Resources

Reference Checks - How reference checks add value to the process.

Harvard Business Review - How to get the most out of your reference checks.

5 steps for conducting reference checks.

Tips to get the most out of reference checks.

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