How to make the most of reference checks

Here's how hiring managers and human resource professionals can get valuable information out of reference checks.

When you've found a great candidate for your company and were impressed during the interview process, a subsequent reference check may seem like a formality. In this situation, many hiring managers may call and ask a few simple questions of references, while others might forego the step altogether.

However, employers should never underestimate the value of a thorough reference check. This step in the hiring process can reveal cleverly masked issues with seemingly perfect candidates or even shed new, favorable light on job seekers who weren't initially front runners. Here are a few ways that hiring managers and human resource professionals can get valuable information out of reference checks.

"Always keep your questions job-related."

Know what's off limits
As with any step in the hiring process, it's important to act only within your legal rights when conducting reference checks. To reduce liability for your company, start by getting written permission to contact references from candidates.

When on the phone with a reference, keep your questions job-related and don't probe into any aspects of the candidate's personal life. You shouldn't be asking about an individual's hobbies, social activities, religious beliefs, marital status, children, disabilities or past legal actions like workers' compensation claims.

Carefully tailor your questions
To make the most of a reference check, prepare in the same way you would for an interview. Think about what information you'd ideally like to gather about the candidate and create a list of specific questions to ask. Open-ended questions will be the most useful for gathering honest, enlightening answers, so avoid "yes" or "no" inquiries whenever possible. Your goal should be to elicit detailed responses from the employers you're speaking with.

If you asked the candidate self-evaluative questions - such as, "How well do you work as part of a team?" - it is often beneficial to ask references the same questions so you can compare answers. In many instances, job seekers will tell you the answers you want to hear, but past employers can clue you in to the reality of the situation.

Pay attention to non-verbal communication when speaking with references.

Don't just listen to answers
Past employers generally want to say nice things when they're listed as references, so don't take their answers at face value. Listen to their tone of voice, as this can clue you in to if they're being honest or holding back. If you sense there's something the reference isn't telling you, gently probe with a few follow-up questions to see if he or she will open up.

Go off-list when needed
Naturally, job seekers are going to provide personal and professional references who they know will say positive things. If you find that the people you call have a personal connection that keeps them from being transparent or a reliable judge of character, don't be afraid to stray from the reference list provided to you. As long as you obtained permission to contact previous employers, go ahead and call the companies listed and ask for your candidate's manager.

This content brought to you by the Marketing Team at Beacon Hill Staffing Group.

Related Resources