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Reference Checks – Do’s, Don’ts, In’s and Out’s

One of the staples of the hiring process, reference checks, is often overlooked by recruiters and candidates in terms of its value and importance to the hiring process. Too often, candidates do not give enough thought and prep time in considering their references and what they might say to a potential employer. Companies, on the other hand, can sometimes take a far too cavalier approach to checking a candidate’s references and treat it more like a check in the box/formality rather than treating it as an opportunity to align the position outcomes against what the candidate has previously done. To that extent here are the key things to remember for job seekers and employers when it comes to reference checks:

Reference checkFor Candidates:

1. ALWAYS get permission from your references to use them as a reference – just because they were a reference for you once, don’t assume they are ok with being a reference everytime.

2. Make sure you have up to date contact information for your references – work phone, home phone, wireless, email, etc. The more contact points you provide, the easier it is for a potential employer to conduct a reference check and potentially make you an offer.

3. Give your references a heads up that someone may be calling them – once you get to the stage with an employer where they are asking for references, things are getting pretty serious. Give your references a heads up, once you have given your reference list to a potential employer, that someone from ACME Industries may be calling them in the next several days.

4. Let your references know as much as possible about the job you have interviewed for – this way, they can context what it is you have done vs. what the potential employer is calling them for. They will be better prepared and better able to deliver a quality reference check. As well, let your references know about the company/industry that the job is in – it will further allow them to provide insight into your abilities.

5. Make sure you have your references with you when come to an interview – while this is not a deal breaker by any means if you don’t, it does show the interviewer that you are confident and prepared. There is nothing worse than a candidate being asked for references and the reply is, ‘Um, ok, I’ll have to get those together over the next few days.”

6. When you find out if you got the job (or not) follow up with your references – let them know your status (i.e. still looking, gainfully employed) and thank them for taking the time to provide the reference. They will be more willing to do it again if you are thoughtful and professional.

For Employers:

1. Don’t ask for references and start calling them unless you are serious about the candidate – this should be one of the last stages of the hiring process. At this stage, it is probably down to two candidates (or less) for the job. You need to be serious about the candidate because calling references means that you plan on making an offer if the references go well.

2. Be respectful of references’ time – to follow on from point #1, you should be darn certain that there are no doubts about filling the position either (with any candidates) as conducting references means you are taking up the time of another individual(s). You must be serious about filling the role and not simply checking boxes on a pre-hire checklist. Make sure that recruiting is aligned with operations on the need to hire before you contact references.
3. Make sure the reference checker knows the job – the person conducting the reference check needs to understand the job that is being filled. A reference check should NOT be a simple ask/respond exercise. Quality reference checks occur when the person asking the questions knows the job that is being filled and understands the expected outcomes of the job. That way, they can ask the reference, “We need someone to be able to streamline our entire internal audit system for a 500 person company….can Jane do that?” It is also helpful if the reference checker has also interviewed the candidate – this way they can probe and address any areas of concern that may have popped up in the interview, or at the very least, validate information that was gathered during the interview and assessment processes.

4. Ask quality questions based on the needed outcomes for the position – if you are hiring for a Director of Sales, do you really need to ask what their attendance at work was like or what their weakness was? Focus on things like technical abilities, ability to lead or be a part of team (ask for an example), demonstrated outcomes in the areas in question (meeting sales quotas), etc.

5. Know what the most important question to ask is – when conducting reference checks, there is really only one question that needs to be asked – “If given the opportunity, would you hire/rehire this person?” (you can clarify based on role, etc.) At the end of the day, if the person giving the reference is sold on the candidate, this answer is always, “Without a doubt!”

What about you? What have I missed? Any other tips for candidates or companies? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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