While the actual value of checking references can be debated, it’s been a fundamental part of the employment vetting process forever.
Ideally, if time permits, hiring managers should check references, especially if insight into a candidate’s ability to do the job is being sought.
However, it’s important to put reference checking in the right light by understanding both its shortcomings and how the process can often be put to better use.
First, understand that references only want to relay positive information about the candidate. The candidate under consideration has offered these references, so they will be inclined to have a positive attitude about the candidate, and that’s fine.
It’s best not to go on a fishing expedition looking for negatives. That causes undue discomfort for the reference and might cast your organization in a bad light. We’ve all made mistakes that we regret, so it’s safe to assume that if you dig deep enough, you’ll find something negative on everyone. A black mark in a person’s past doesn’t necessarily disqualify the candidate from becoming a standout in your company.
It’s better to invest your time – and the references’ time – more productively.
- Use your reference checking as a way to learn more about the candidate, but from another person’s perspective.
- See what unique skills and talents the candidate contributed to previous positions. Maybe they were the ‘go-to’ person in certain situations.
- Try to discover how the candidate would complement your team if hired.
- Engage references in a conversation instead of presenting them with a list of pointed questions.
Also, be sure your ‘reference checking etiquette’ is beyond reproach. Get a candidate’s permission before checking references formally or informally through your connections. Give the candidate time to notify their references that they’ll be contacted. Also, be timely about the process. Try to reach out to references within a few days of notifying the candidate.
Finally, consider emailing a short questionnaire to references instead of conducting a phone interview. This could prove more convenient for the references – it eliminates phone tag – and they may offer longer, and more considered answers to your questions. It can also save you a considerable amount of time. (Email me if you would like a copy of the form I use.)
When conducted properly, reference checking should be both painless and productive.