8 Tips for Effective Reference Checks

Why are reference checks important? Because bad hires are expensive. They can cost an organization 150% of the employee’s annual salary in lost productivity, recruitment costs and other outlays. If you hold onto a poor hire for a long time before they leave, or if there’s a messy termination involved, you can double that cost.

Here are a few other reasons why I would never finalize a job hire without first completing reference checks:

  • With the right help, anyone can look good on paper. Resumes (and letters of reference) need to be vetted by speaking with a candidate’s past supervisor.
  • Good in the interview doesn’t always equate to good on the job. Some people can ace an interview even though they perform poorly in their jobs.
  • Great candidates don’t always interview well. There are times when you can miss out on a great match for your role simply because your candidate isn’t a “good talker”. That can be especially true when interviewing for high tech, data entry or back office roles. If the resume, experience and credentials look great but your candidate is on the shy side, reference checks can give you a better idea of how they actually perform on the job.

8 Tips for Conducting Effective Reference Checks

  1. Get consent first. Before you call, you must first obtain consent from the candidate to contact their references and ask employment-related questions.
  2. Conduct at least two reference checks. These should be over the phone. That way you can pay attention to tone of voice and whether the reference hesitates before answering. If you receive one glowing reference and one mediocre one, ask for a third to balance out your perspective.
  3. Plan your questions ahead of time so that every reference for each candidate is asked the same thing. That way you’ll be able to compare candidates fairly and objectively.
  4. Performance related questions should be in line with the job requirements and the types of questions that you asked during the interview. For example, if you asked a candidate to describe their ability to problem solve under pressure, you should ask the reference the same question (and then compare how the answers match).
  5. If in doubt, don’t ask. If a question isn’t appropriate under the Human Rights Code to ask in an interview, it isn’t appropriate to ask during a reference check.
  6. Don’t put words in the reference’s mouth. Especially when you think you’ve found a super hero candidate, don’t ask leading questions that, in the end, will only justify your gut feeling. In these times especially, it’s better to ask open-ended questions (ie: questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”) to get the supervisor’s real opinion about the candidate.
  7. Take notes. We’re all busy. And information is pouring into us at an alarming rate these days. Don’t trust that you’ll remember what the reference said. Take careful notes about your conversation. Especially if you have a few close candidates, comparing your notes afterwards will assist in narrowing down the field.
  8. Get help if you need it. If time, resources or skill sets are holding you back from performing proper reference checks, consider working with a professional recruiter. A recruiter is not only trained on the types of questions to ask, they’ve also developed a “spidey-sense” for reading things like tone of voice and what the reference isn’t saying. They’ve also got the time to devote to this important part of the hiring process.

Doing your due diligence by performing reference checks before you finalize the hire of a new employee isn’t just good practice, it’s good business. A small amount of extra effort in the beginning can save a ton of headache and expense after the hire. Your peace of mind and bottom line will thank you.

About the author

(Voted Barrie’s Best Employment Agency 6 years running, ESS Direct offers recruitment and temporary placement services throughout Barrie and South Simcoe County, specializing in helping companies identify, attract and hire administrative and office heroes.)