Three Ways Reference Checks Can Help You Make the Right Hire

References should provide valuable insights into the fit of a candidate for a particular position. Reference checks are often performed as the final step in the hiring process, oftentimes once an offer is already imminent. So, how can employers engage a candidates references to get more information and make better hiring decisions?

A Good Conversation Makes a Good Reference

There are three secrets to getting the most out of a reference check:

  • Know what questions you want answered.
  • Make it conversational.
  • Give the reference the facts they need to evaluate the candidate for the role at hand.

Ask clear questions about the candidate’s past performance, demeanor in the workplace, and anything else that’s important to success in the role. At Boly:Welch, we try to get references directly after the first interview for the candidates our clients are most excited about. This helps with narrowing the finalists. We get feedback from as many people as possible about any concerns they have. After all, we’re trying to go beyond simply verifying resume information.

Once we know what questions are most relevant to a candidate’s success in a role, we work to start the conversation by letting the references know that we’re on the candidate’s side. A good opener is something like: “Andrew let us know how much he learned from you, and we wanted to hear more about your work with him.”

We also let them know that the reference check will be quick. Even if the conversation ends up being longer, setting expectations for people helps them say yes when they are asked.

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Reference check conversations should not feel scripted, even if you have certain points you want to cover in each conversation. Even with a reference form in hand, we try to start conversations with a little small talk, letting the reference know what we like about the candidate and how much their reference can help us determine whether the candidate will be a good fit in the role.

When contacting a reference, be sure to outline the specifics of the job for them, so they understand the type of role the candidate is interviewing for and what skills and experience will make them successful in the role. Include context on the company culture and any parts of the job that might be challenging.

When the foundation has been laid, ask reference questions in a way that is conversational, but not open-ended. Instead of “Was Cory a team player?”, try “How did Cory interact with his team?” You’ll get a much more in-depth and authentic response.

As the conversation progresses, you can hint at your concerns about the candidate. For a new manager, for instance, you can ask, “How do you think she’ll do as a supervisor?”

If you aren’t explicit, references will tell you what a great person she is or that she is a hard worker, rather than evaluate their skills. We love the follow-up question: “What should Allie’s new manager know about her to make sure she’s set up for success in her new role?”

The Difference Between Good and Bad References

A good reference should leave you feeling excited about a candidate. Keep in mind that references are typically hand-picked by the candidate. If they are not good or lukewarm, that is a fairly clear indictment of the candidate. If a candidate left a company on good terms, they should be able to say some good things about a candidate. One of our recruiters often says: “Saying nothing is a bad reference.”

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Similarly, if a candidate only lists peers or friends, you should view this a red flag. If none of the candidate’s previous managers would say positive things about them, you can draw your own inferences about how good an employee they were. Listen to your gut – typically references will highlight the best parts about a candidate.

Looking to get the most insight in the short amount of time? Stick with this question: “Is Kirsten eligible for rehire?” If the answer is no, dig deeper – is this a company policy or specific to the person? Why? If you can get the answer to this question, you’ll likely know enough about the candidate to make a solid judgment of their fit for your role.

How to Get Valuable Information from a Challenging Reference

Sometimes, you just can’t get a great reference. Some candidates with long tenures can’t provide current work references, because they don’t want their existing employer to know that they are looking. Some employers have strict, draconian policies that don’t allow managers to give more than a basic confirmation of the candidate’s title and dates of employment. Whatever the reason, there are several workarounds to get some information for secondary sources.

First, if the company’s policy to not to give professional references, ask the contact if they can give you an “off-the-record” or a personal reference. They might be willing to speak if the company’s name is not attached, particularly if they liked the candidate.

In cases where the candidate can’t provide current supervisory references, we recommend more informal references – ask the candidate for people in their network that have left their office who would be willing to speak or people in supervisory capacities they can trust that aren’t their direct supervisor.

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Hopefully, with these reference tips in hand, you’ll get the information you need to confirm the perfect candidate. By coming prepared and digging deep in reference checks, you’ll make solid, informed hires and make the most out of this valuable hiring resource!