HR Mavericks

Eddy’s HR Mavericks Encyclopedia

Reference Check

After working hard to narrow down the applicant pool, you think you have finally found the perfect candidate to fill the open position. One of the next steps is typically to complete reference checks to solidify your candidate as your next new hire. Let's discuss the pros, cons, and how-tos of checking references.

What Is a Reference Check?

A reference check verifies and confirms the candidate’s qualifications by contacting individuals who can speak to the candidate’s experience and skills.

Reference Check vs Background Check

Reference checks and background checks verify different information. Reference checks confirm the candidate’s work experience and behavioral tendencies. They also help determine their overall fit for the position and environment. Background checks look into things like criminal history, motor vehicle history, credit history, licensures, and education.

Are Reference Checks Helpful for HR?

Yes! With one caveat: reference checks are helpful only if you’re getting information that is beneficial. If you’re only asking if this person was employed there, if they are dependable, if they performed X job responsibility, or other yes/no questions, then you’re not taking advantage of the deeper insights you can receive by performing reference checks. (More on what to ask later.)

Pros of Reference Checks

There are tons of good reasons to do reference checks; here are a few.
  • Validation: Perhaps you have red flags from your interview that you cannot put your finger on, but everything else checks the box. Maybe you thought the candidate handled certain situations in past positions in ways that will be beneficial in this role. This is your time to dig deeper and get a third-party view. This could be the step that uncovers something that prevents a bad hire or confirms a great one.
  • Opportunity to be proactive: As you assess the candidate’s prior experience and potential success for this position, you’ll get an idea of what to expect once they start. This allows you and the hiring manager to discuss ways to be proactive. Say the feedback you get indicates that the candidate is a bit slow to connect with their department. You can be proactive in assigning this person a mentor their first month, or the manager can be sure to step in and check on them a little more often.
  • Sets the bar: Taking reference checks seriously helps set the impression with the candidate that the company isn’t taking the hiring decision lightly and that you prioritize vetting everyone who has been chosen for the team. References often follow up with the candidate to let them know how the call went, so the candidate will hear the references’ perspective of what you’re asking, looking for, and their overall feel of the company as well.

Cons of Reference Checks

There aren't really cons of checking references, as any information you get will be useful. There are a couple of limitations or challenges you need to be aware of, including how the candidate chooses the references to offer you and the time commitment involved on both ends.
  • Cherry-picking: Your candidate selects who they offer as a reference. In most cases, they reach out to the individuals beforehand to give them a heads up that you may be calling. You can safely assume that the candidate has a personal friendship with the candidate. So get your BS meter ready, as it’s up to us to cut through the fluff.
  • Relevancy: As candidates select who to provide, they may not provide relevant references. A couple of tips to combat this:
    • Require professional references. You don’t want to hear from their aunt or college best friend; you want to speak with references who have had exposure to the candidate in a working environment. The more relatable the position and the closer the contact directly worked with, the better. This is something you may run into a lot with candidates who are just starting their careers. If this is the case, you can ask for teachers, volunteer contacts, etc.
    • Don’t be afraid to request a specific type of reference. If you would like to speak to a prior manager, ask that they provide one. If you have a candidate applying for a senior management position and they provide a reference who went through an internship program with them 15+ years ago, this reference will not be able to answer your questions because they do not have any experience working directly with the candidate.
  • Time commitment: Completing reference checks is not only a time commitment on our end, but it takes the time of the reference too. Scheduling at the reference's convenience helps them not feel obligated to vouch for their friend on the spot, but can also delay the overall process.

What’s Included in a Reference Check?

Now let’s go over the typical process of a reference check. Just remember to tailor them to fit your company’s specific needs.

Who Should Conduct a Reference Check?

Reference checks typically fall to HR. However, ask if the hiring manager has any questions they would like cleared up during the reference check. Depending on what they are looking for, consider having the hiring manager sit in on or conduct any that would be beneficial for them to hear. Hiring managers tend to want to speak to recent relevant managers. Be sure to coach the hiring manager on your documentation process and how to keep their inquiries job-related.

When Should Reference Checks Take Place?

Start by asking yourself and/or the hiring manager if there is anything that would make you reconsider the candidate. If the hiring manager is on the fence about the candidate, you might conduct reference checks prior to the offer letter. If they are just a formality, you can conduct them after the offer is accepted, as part of the pre-employment process. If you do reference checks after the offer letter, include a line in your offer letter that the offer is contingent on passing pre-employment screenings.

What Do You Need to Provide to Get Results?

You will build a standard go-to list of questions to ask with any position over time, but what are the key things about this specific position you’re looking for? Compile those items and make sure to talk about them in your reference check. For example, say you're doing reference checks for a senior management position. You might identify three key components you're looking for: technical ability, the ability to develop staff, and the ability to operate in a smaller organization with less structure. Build questions that dig for those qualities. It's useful to give references a high-level overview of what your company does, what this position does, who it manages, who it reports to, and why you find those three components key to the success of this position. Then ask if the candidate can meet those three requirements and why the reference thinks so. Being detailed encourages the reference to be more thoughtful and precise than if you use generic inquiries.

Tips for Easy and Effective Reference Checks

Tip 1: Know What to Ask for

Companies generally request three professional references. Sometimes it's not possible to connect with all three; sometimes the candidate is only able to offer two relevant references and a personal one. Use your best judgment as to when you have gathered enough useful information. Limit the number of internal (references from people who work in your organization) or personal references to one. Focus on getting an outside, professional perspective.

Tip 2: Trouble Making Contact? Speak Up!

Have you left several voicemails for the reference with no return call? If you can’t touch base with a reference in an appropriate amount of time, let your candidate know. They may contact the reference or provide another one.

Tip 3: Put the Reference at Ease

There are a couple of strategies you can use to make the reference comfortable and inclined to give you the most insight.
  • Ask the reference if now is a good time to pick their brain a little about the candidate or if they would rather schedule a time later. Your reference has their own responsibilities; it's beneficial to make sure they can speak freely and have the time to do so. Give them a time estimate; a general rule of thumb is 20 to 25 minutes.
  • Before you begin, let the reference know that you understand no candidate is perfect, and the more candid they can be helps you make sure that the candidate will be put in a position where they’ll be successful. This helps the reference know you’re not looking only for the ‘right’ answers.
  • Be prepared with a list of questions, but try to make it feel like a conversation. Ask the questions casually versus just reading a script. This will get easier the more reference checks you conduct and the more you see how people respond to your questions. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your list based on their responses.
  • Watch your tone. Keep your reactions to their feedback free of judgment or concern. If the reference catches wind the call isn’t going well, they’ll stop being candid and return to less insightful, more predictable responses.

Tip 4: Listen More Than You Speak

Ask open-ended questions that give the reference the opportunity to provide information in their own words. Let the references have the floor. You can learn a lot when they start to talk about their memory of something and not just focusing on answering your question positively.

Tip 5: Don’t Forget to Document

Be sure to document all references as part of the hiring paperwork. Treat them like a phone interview: take detailed notes so you recall what was said and so you can share them with the hiring manager. References also help support decisions made when choosing not to hire someone.Your intuition and judgement come into play with reference checks, but be sure to keep the criteria related to the job requirements to avoid any discrimination concerns.

Examples of Reference Check Questions

It's helpful to start by asking the reference for a high-level overview about how they have worked with the candidate previously. This breaks the ice by allowing the reference to talk about themselves a little and helps you understand the viewpoint you’re getting about the candidate. From there, let's consider a few typical questions and the “why” behind them. You might ask a reference about:

The Candidate’s Strengths

“Can you please describe the type of work that the candidate was responsible for in this position?” This question gives you an idea of what their essential functions were, at least from the viewpoint of the reference. You can use this as an opportunity to ask technical questions that confirm the candidate's experience with the essential functions of your open position.

The Candidate’s Management Style or Response to Being Managed

If this is a management position: “How do you think the candidate's direct reports would describe his or her management style?” If this is not a management position: “How would you describe the candidate’s relationship with their boss (or coworkers)?” You want to hear how the candidate interacts with others. Although this response is likely to have a positive take, what does that look like versus the interaction your position will experience? For example, if you know this person will come into a team who is very close and upset at losing a member the new hire will replace, relational skills will play an important role.

The Candidate’s Strengths

“What are the candidate’s strengths at work?” This question gives you the opportunity to hear what stands out about the candidate. The reference may focus on soft skills instead of technical skills. Does this feedback align with what this position needs?

The Candidate’s Weaknesses

“On the flip side of that, not everything can be a strength. What would be a weakness or area of improvement for the candidate?” The reference may hesitate to point out any weakness, and when they do, they may put a positive spin on it. Despite that, listen closely to what they say here. If they try to skip this question, tell them they can think on it a bit and that you’ll circle back. Be as open and supportive for the reference as you can to encourage their candor. As we mentioned above, it may be useful to remind them that you want to make the right choice for the candidate and only put them in a situation in which they will succeed. Of all the questions to dig deeper on, this is it. Use this question to further the conversation. Follow-up questions may include:
  • What does this look like in action?
  • What kind of impact did this have in the group?
  • How did the candidate try to overcome this?
  • Do you think they are aware of this weakness?

The Candidate’s Performance Under Stress

“How well does the candidate perform in stressful situations?” People modify their behavior and response to things day in and day out, but during times of stress and pressure, their true colors show. Do they hold all their stress in? Do they wear their emotions on their sleeve? Are they able to cope with stress in a way that doesn't weaken their own or their teams' performance?

The Candidate’s Leadership Inclinations

“From your observation, does the candidate tend to take on the role of a leader or supporter?” Every company needs leaders and supporters. Does the candidate look for direction and then opportunities to drive things home, or are they a proven leader who is quick to step up to the plate? Maybe they can do both given the situation. What does your position need? Ask this question in a way that values both roles.
Samantha Kiper

Samantha Kiper

Samantha is the HR Manager at an oil and gas midstream company. Her niche is the smaller mid-size company where you're in that in-between of having formal structured policies and procedures and where HR is just a thought of a concept. Samantha is a serial hobbyist - name it and she's probably dabbled in it.
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