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Never make an offer without conducting reference checks

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Most employers conduct reference checks as part of the hiring process before making an offer. An in-depth reference check involves talking to referees to get an insight into an applicant's qualifications, skills and abilities to do the job. This is your chance to get an insight of your future employee from a person that has actually worked with them. Past performance is the best indicator of candidate's future performance.

Why should you conduct reference checks?

Carrying out reference checks gives you the opportunity to;

  • Verify a candidate's employment history/education
  • Confirm information you were provided with by the candidate during the interview
  • Get an insight into applicant's strengths, weaknesses, performance, behaviour and working habits.

What you need to let a referee know;

  • Let them know that candidate permitted you to contact them
  • Advise them that all information given will be kept confidential.
  • Verify the nature of the relationship between the applicant and the referee, as well as the length of time they have known each other.
  • Stress the type of responsibilities that the applicant will have if selected for the opportunity.

To conduct an effective reference check, follow these steps:

1. Ask the applicant for their work references

Your aim is to speak to the candidate's previous managers or at least someone who has previously worked with them.

If it's not possible to talk to the current or previous manager, talk to:

  • Other, indirect managers
  • Team members or co-workers
  • Teachers or professors (for students)
  • Volunteer coordinators (for candidates with volunteering experience)

You should aim for 2-3 references per candidate. Try to avoid personal references, as they are likely to be extremely biased and in most cases, will be only able to vouch for their character, not their working ability.

2. Contact the references to arrange a phone meeting

Allow for a minimum of 15 minutes per reference to conduct a thorough reference check. This will give you sufficient time to get the answers for the basic, routine questions as well as the more character and skill based questions.

3. Areas to discuss with the references

  • Confirmation of employment details
  • Comments on work performance
  • Familiarity with candidate's work
  • Comments on technical & soft skills required for the position
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Areas of concern
  • Interest in working with candidate again
  • Behavioural-based examples from the candidate's work history to verify the candidate's experience and skills. For example: 'Describe a difficult project that the candidate in question had to manage and the problems she/he ran into. How did she/he resolve them?' Try to use open ended questions, rather than 'yes' or 'no' questions. This will encourage the referee to expand on their answer and provide the desired information in a descriptive manner. Remember to only seek information which relates to the role in question. It's important to pay attention also to what the reference doesn't say about the candidate.

4. Difficulties you may run into

You can assume that your candidate informed references that you might be calling, but if it turns out he/she hasn't done so, it could reflect on their lack of attention to detail or would mean that it's not a strong reference.

If your candidate provides a reference whose company has a policy of not providing references for previous employees, ask the referee if they will act as a personal reference rather than providing a reference on behalf of the company. This approach will work for some employers and means you will get sufficient information from a current or former manager.

If the candidate does not have local references and are only able to provide foreign references, it's still the best option to contact the overseas reference via phone or email.

In case the reference won't supply any further information aside from confirmation of employment and position, ask your candidate to supply additional references.

5. Evaluate reference checks

After you have contacted all the referees, you need to assess if the information provided by them confirms or contradicts your impression of the candidate. Ideally, the reference checks confirm that the potential employee is a strong candidate.

If the reference checks raise concerns and you feel he/she is no longer ideal, you can then proceed to another candidate. It's better to discover applicants faults at this stage rather than after the candidate starts working for you.

6. Make the final decision

Make an offer to the best candidate for your role, based on:

  • Their CV
  • The phone interview
  • The face to face interview
  • Reference checks & other checks

Never hire anyone without conducting an effective reference check. Reference-checking is not just a trivial formality. It can be the best tool for uncovering half-truths or misleading information that a job candidate might be throwing your way.