As an employer, you’re responsible for going through the hiring process and finding top-notch employees who fit in with your work culture. But to do that, you have to do a little homework.
Many businesses use a reference check to dive deeper into an applicant’s employment past and find out if they’re fit for the job. But if you want to become a reference check pro, you need to learn how to do a reference check and what to ask references.
What is a reference check?
Reference checks are an essential part of the hiring process. A reference check is when an employer contacts an applicant’s previous employers, schools, and other individuals (e.g., personal references) to learn more about the candidate.
With reference checks, you can learn more about applicants, such as their:
- Employment history
- Educational background
- Job qualifications
- Strengths and weaknesses
Reference check steps
If you want to thoroughly check your candidate’s references, you need to study up and follow the six steps below. Depending on who you’re contacting (e.g., old employer), you might need to rephrase or ask additional questions.
1. Verify the candidate’s name
First things first: when contacting a reference, be sure you verify the candidate’s name. This step might seem obvious, but you never know if it’ll weed out dishonest candidates.
If you’re reaching out to a previous employer, make sure you also verify their title and dates of employment.
2. Confirm how they know the candidate
Depending on your requirements, candidates might provide a list of different types of references. For example, your business might require that the candidate gives at least two personal references in addition to two professional references.
When contacting each reference, verify how the reference knows the candidate. That way, you can cross-check the details about the references that your candidate provided to you. And, it also helps verify who you’re speaking with.
3. Ask what makes the candidate a good fit
The last thing you want to do is hire someone unqualified. Use your time with the candidate’s reference to gauge whether or not the candidate will be a good fit for the position.
When you’re verifying candidates, explain the scope of the job to the reference. Ask them whether or not they believe the reference would thrive in the position and why.
While listening to the reference’s response, be sure to watch out for indicators that they’re not 100% honest with you. Listen to what the reference isn’t saying. Silence in reference checks can be very telling. For example, a hesitation or vague response could indicate they don’t believe the candidate is right for the job or are afraid to share details.
4. Have the reference rank the candidate
You should have a variety of reference check questions prepared when you contact a candidate’s reference. Some of these might include open-ended questions, short-answer questions, and multiple choice questions that use a scale ranking from 1-10.
Requiring the reference to rank the candidate can give you an easy way to get an honest answer from a reference. With ranking questions, the reference has to think about their response because they’re only giving a number.
Here are a few examples of ranking questions:
- On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the candidate’s communication skills?
- How would you rank the candidate’s writing skills from 1-10?
Don’t be fooled by references that give the candidate all 10’s. You and your reference both know that the candidate can’t be perfect in every skill set. If you have a reference that does this, ask them follow-up questions to find out why they rated them so high. Likewise, if the reference rates them low, be sure to ask additional questions to find out why they did so.
5. Find out the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses
One main goal of your employment reference check should be to find out the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.
Along with your other sets of questions, be sure to specifically ask the reference to list the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, you could ask the reference to tell you two strengths and two weaknesses or growth opportunities for the candidate.
This will help you get a good idea of where the candidate needs to improve and where they excel most. Not to mention, being straightforward about strengths and weaknesses can also tell you if the candidate is compatible with the job’s requirements and necessary skills.
6. Ask about the candidate’s behavior
Knowing a candidate’s behaviors and attitudes can help you predict how they will act in your work environment. If you’re contacting an old employer, be sure you dig into the candidate’s behavior.
When you ask questions about the candidate, don’t forget to weave in questions to find out their actions and behaviors at their old jobs. Did they get along with other co-workers? Did they ever cause any conflicts at work? Why did they leave the positions? All of these questions will help you get a good understanding of the candidate’s workplace habits and behaviors.
Reference check tips
Want to kick your reference check process into high gear? Use the five tips below to become the ultimate reference checker.
1. Take the process seriously
First and foremost, make sure you’re taking the reference check process seriously. Take the time to research questions and prepare yourself. Otherwise, you could wind up burning yourself later by onboarding a poor hire.
Taking the reference checking process lightly can:
- Keep you from hiring an all-star employee
- Waste your money and time
- Make you spend additional time finding a replacement
2. Conduct two verbal checks
There are going to be candidates who sound great on paper, but interview poorly. On the other hand, there are also going to be candidates who nail the interview but perform their job poorly.
Before you bring anyone onto your team, conduct at least two verbal reference checks. Verbal reference checks can include phone calls, video chats, or in-person meetings.
Verbal checks give you a way to understand a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses as well as how they really perform on the job. Not to mention, they help prevent you from wasting your time hiring a dud.
3. Plan your questions ahead of time
You need to be prepared when you interview candidates. Likewise, you should be equally as prepared when checking your candidate’s references.
Before you contact a candidate’s references, have your questions ready to go. If you don’t plan your questions carefully, you’re only going to hurt yourself.
Take some time to really think about the questions you want to ask. Dig deep to think of out-of-the-box questions you want answered about the candidate. Avoid asking questions that get you a “yes or no” response. Do some research to find good questions to ask references. And, keep your questions legal, or they might come back to haunt you.
Your questions should give you insight into the candidate’s workplace behaviors, past experiences, and skill set.
4. Look out for fake references
According to the Economic Times, nearly 20-30% of candidates use fake references. With a good chunk of candidates fibbing about their references, you must do your due diligence to spot the fakes.
You can look out for imposters by:
- Checking the reference on social media (e.g., Facebook)
- Cross-checking phone numbers, if possible
- Following up with and thanking the reference (e.g., message on LinkedIn)
5. Take notes
When you contact your candidate’s references, be sure to take as many notes as possible.
Even if you already know you’re going to hire the candidate and received positive feedback from their references, it’s always good to have detailed notes to refer back to.
Consider creating a reference check template or form. That way, you can fill it out when you’re conducting your reference check. Keep your form for each applicant on file in case you need to track it down in the future.
Your form or template should include things like:
- The candidate’s name
- Reference’s name and contact information
- List of questions
- Reference’s responses to your questions
- Your signature
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This article has been updated from its original publication date of September 21, 2011.
This is not intended as legal advice; for more information, please click here.