Tips for How — and Why — to Check References

By May 10, 2017 at 7:51pm

Getting references about job candidates from a former employer is tougher than ever these days. Because managers know that saying too much or too little can have legal consequences, they are increasingly wary of being specific about past employees and their work histories when you try to check references.

Some companies have been sued for not disclosing enough information about former workers, while others have paid enormous settlements because they provided a negative job reference check — whether true or false. The job reference check isn't quite as simple as it used to be.

Make checking references a priority

Because of these difficulties, rushing through the process of checking references — or bypassing it altogether — in order to make a quick hire may be tempting to small businesses, especially those in danger of losing candidates to another firm in today's competitive hiring environment. Even so, getting reliable information from a former supervisor is an important step to take before bringing someone on board. Read on for reference check tips and red flags to watch out for.

3 job reference check tips

Here are some tips on how to handle the often difficult process of checking references for job candidates you are interested in hiring:

1. Let the candidate know you check references

Be clear with candidates at the outset of the job interview process that your company will be checking their references.

Checking references is perfectly legal as long as the information being verified is job-related and does not violate discrimination laws. Informing applicants that you're checking references usually helps ensure that the answers they give you during the interview are truthful.

2. Don't delegate it

If the employee will report directly to you, you should perform the job reference check. No matter how thorough a delegate or deputy may be, the hiring manager will have corollary questions that may not occur to others.

Also, calling someone at your same level may establish greater camaraderie that will prompt a more honest and detailed reference. If that weren't enough, checking references yourself is a great way to gain insight from a former supervisor on how to best manage the individual.

3. Start with the candidate’s responses

Asking candidates during the job interview what their former employers are likely to say about them can provide you with a good starting point with a former employer when checking references. You can begin by saying something such as, "Joe tells me that you think he was an awesome employee" and have the employer take it from there. You may not get a totally frank answer, but you can get valuable comments and insights. After all, the candidate must assume that you're going to check out the answers and that you'll be expecting a recommendation.  

Reference check red flags: 5 warning signs

Additionally, when seeking feedback from your top candidates' former employers, be on high alert for the following warning signs:

1. Negative feedback

It should go without saying that if a reference doesn't provide a glowing assessment of a candidate, you should consider that a red flag. But don't stop there. Ask probing questions to discover why.

You may come to suspect, for example, that a former colleague or boss is giving a bad reference that isn't really deserved, perhaps due to past personal conflict. In that type of situation, your best bet is to conduct several more reference checks with different contacts to confirm or refute the feedback.

2. 'Don't call this one.'

If a candidate submits references and then hints that you should not get in touch with certain people on the list, that's not a good sign. Likewise, if you try to connect with references only to discover you've been given a wrong telephone number, the writing may be on the wall that something is amiss.

Resist the urge to jump to conclusions, though. Give the candidate a chance to supply new, correct contact information. The person's reference may have moved, or it could have been a typo.

3. Just-the-facts references

Some employers may supply factual references only — that is, just confirming the name, job title and dates of employment. This could indicate a less-than-satisfactory work history, or you may simply be dealing with an employer whose policies don't allow further elaboration.

To determine which is the case during your reference checks, replace open-ended questions ("In which areas did she excel on the job?") with more straightforward queries ("Would you rehire her if you had the chance?"). Sometimes, a more direct question can get silent references to open up.

4. Inconsistencies

If at any point during the reference checks a former employer tells you something that doesn't align with what the candidate indicated in the resume or during the interview, that should set off warning bells. Ask the reference a few more direct questions to make sure you aren't misinterpreting the response. Depending on the extent of the discrepancies, you may want to give the candidate a chance to explain.

5. Overly positive references

If the feedback you receive sounds a little too good to be true, it probably is. Honest references will candidly share the strengths and weaknesses of their former employee or colleague, especially if you ask the right questions. If the reference can't identify a single thing the candidate can do better, he or she may not be giving you a complete picture.

Despite the work involved, you shouldn’t shy away from conducting a reference check with a former employer of someone you are preparing to hire. The more time you take to vet a candidate up front, the better your chances of making a great hire — or avoiding a bad one.

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