Reference Checks – What You Can Learn and How to Conduct Them

December 30th, 2011

You’ve reviewed an applicant’s resume, had her in for an interview, come away impressed by what you’ve seen and heard. In an ideal world, that would mark the end of the hiring process. But in the real world, the next step is conducting a reference check.

What do employers hope to uncover as a result of this process? The answer may vary from position to position, or company to company, but certain essential elements remain the same. These include:

  • Verify basic informationTitles, professional degrees, dates of past employment, compensation, reason for leaving
  • Past job performance – What sets this person apart from others in terms of prior job performance?
  • Past achievements – Did the achievements listed on the resume result from individual or team efforts?
  • The reference’s opinion – What are some of the individual’s strengths and weaknesses? How well did they manage their time? Would you hire this person again?

How do you go about obtaining this information? The reference check process should always start with the job candidate’s signature on a waiver granting you permission to check their employment history and to contact professional/personal references. If the individual declines to sign, you probably know all you need to know before moving on to other candidates.

Get multiple references (three at least) so you can assess consistency among their answers and to feel you’ve been thorough in your efforts. Types of references may include former supervisors, work peers and/or subordinates. The next step is to contact these people by telephone, rather than email. It’s best to hear about the job candidate in their own words and to be able to ask foll0w-up questions regarding specific conditions or circumstances. And, with each separate conversation, try to dig a bit deeper and learn more; don’t just ask the same questions three times or you’ll end up getting the same three answers.

Ask for – and contact – references who can discuss the individual’s past five years of work history. Anyone you speak with concerning time periods beyond that is unlikely to recall specifics or be able to offer the type of information you’re looking for. Also, depending on the job candidate’s age and experience level, anything beyond the past five years may not offer an accurate description of this person’s abilities and experience right now.

During your conversation, try to avoid “yes or no” questions. You want to learn as much as possible about the job candidate, so focus on open-ended questions that require a thoughtful and informative answer. In addition to the questions listed above, don’t neglect to ask, “Is there anything else I should know before I make an offer to this candidate?”

Questions not to ask: Anything to do with race, age, sex, religion, marital status or national origin. This information is protected by law and has nothing to do with the position within your business.

Reference checks are an integral part of the hiring process, both for what they can confirm about the job applicant and for additional information that can help you make an informed decision about whether or not to offer the job.

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