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Hiring the Right Person: The Art of the Reference Check

This post is the sixth in MRSC's series on the hiring process: Hiring the Right Person.

Reference checks are essential in any hiring process and should almost always be done. While they can sometimes feel cumbersome, a reference check is one of the best opportunities to learn about a candidate’s behavior from a third party, which may help determine if the candidate is a good fit for your organization.

With 30 years of HR experience and hundreds of hiring processes completed, here are a few things I’ve learned to get the most out of reference checks.

Be strategic about doing reference checks. It is best to wait until you’ve narrowed your field to one or two top candidates. Reference checks can take quite a bit of time and it’s important not to rush through them. Also you want to avoid disrupting a candidate’s current work relationship unnecessarily.

Keep the candidate(s) informed. It is good practice to inform the candidate you are proceeding to check references. One way to do this is through a written waiver given as a part of your application process along with notice to all candidates that you reserve the right to check any and all job-related references. A waiver may also be useful in persuading a reluctant reference to provide requested information.

Identify references on your own. Limiting yourself to the references offered by the candidate creates the opportunity for the candidate to control the reference information and to exclude reasonable references who may have critical, negative information about the candidate. A good rule of thumb is three completed reference checks, so identifying four or five possible references can give you a little cushion if someone doesn’t follow through.

Always contact current employers. Candidates are often nervous about having their current employer as a reference, but once you reach the end stage of reference checks, it is critical you talk with the current employer—with no restrictions as to who you speak with at that employer.

Be sure it is a verbal conversation. Avoid written reference checks because they facilitate references limiting disclosure of information and your interest is to maximize the disclosure.

Invest the time in reference conversations. Be prepared to spend the amount of time that you need to fully explore the reference discussion. And try to set up the reference interview so that the reference is able to spend the time you need. Listen closely to everything said by the reference and try to have the reference talk as much as possible. If the reference says anything you don’t fully understand, ask follow up questions and listen to the answers until your issues are resolved.

Focus on the job you are hiring for. Be sure you understand what role this reference had vis-a-vis the candidate and what work the candidate was performing. Remember that a trait that was a strength or a weakness for the reference may not be for your position. Similarly, some “minor” work-related issue may be very important in your job. Always view all reference information through the filter of the job you are hiring for in your organization.

Get all of your questions answered. Most references want to avoid saying anything negative in the reference conversation. At the same time, most references don’t want to lie to you. Try to frame your questioning with these factors in mind. If anything mentioned sounds like a red flag for your hire, keep the reference discussion going until you fully understand the issue involved. If the reference is hesitant to share enough information, you may want to pursue other question areas and circle back to sensitive subjects.

Gather information even from reluctant references. Sometimes references you contact will be reluctant to speak with you at all, even citing policies restricting their ability to give a reference. This is where having a written waiver can help encourage cooperation from the reference. If this fails, try to see if you can talk to someone else at the organization that has the authority and knowledge (or have your attorney talk to their attorney). If you simply can’t get information out of anyone there, it is still important to listen to everything they say and to engage them in conversation as much as possible. Often in the course of explaining the situation, a reference will provide additional information about the candidate.

Although reference checking can seem like a tedious and cumbersome process, a well-done reference check is more than worth the time investment and is an essential step in hiring the best candidate for your job.

Stay tuned for future posts in our Hiring the Right Person series which explores the basic components of a recruitment and selection process, including ideas about how to make your processes more successful and creative. Are there specific questions you’d like answered or topics you’d like to see covered about the hiring process? Let us know in the comments below.

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About Marci Wright

Marci Wright writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Marci Wright retired in 2014 after over 16 years as the City of Shoreline’s first Human Resources Director. Previously, she worked for Thurston County as Director of Employee and Administrative Services (1987 - 1997) and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney (1980 - 1987). Currently volunteering for MRSC she continues to be interested in the full range of human resource issues, especially training, facilitation and problem resolution.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.