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How to Make Reference Checks a Valuable Part of the Hiring Process

Many people feel reference checking is a waste of time, believing that no one would provide a reference if the person wasn’t guaranteed to say good things about them. But in my experience, references tend to be more honest than expected and very helpful. When you ask the right questions and word them appropriately, a hiring manager can glean necessary information about a candidate and their potential match for the role and the company. Here are some tips to make reference checking valuable and worth your time.

Talk to the right people.

This is straightforward – be sure to get a reference from a manager or other senior leader in the organization. Coworkers are often friends of the candidate and may not be as candid with their feedback. 

Set the stage for an honest reference.

I start by letting the reference know that I want to place the candidate in a position where they will succeed. This helps them understand that being honest when talking about strengths and weaknesses will help the candidate over the long-term by avoiding a role in which they may not thrive. Starting a call like this leads to an open and more honest exchange.

Ask the right questions.

Sometimes people go into a reference call with a more informal, wing-it approach, but that often results in missed opportunity. Instead, have your questions prepared in advance and take notes during the call.

Start by gathering background information – how the reference knows the candidate, for how long and in what capacity. Get an idea of the role the candidate was in when they were working together and what the job entailed. I also like to explain the role I’m hiring for and what the candidate would be doing. All of this will set the stage for your conversation.

After laying the foundation, ask a question that gets to the heart of how well they did at their job: 

“How would you evaluate the candidate's performance of their duties?”

Next, ask a question that lets you know if the candidate can do well with something they haven’t done yet:

“How well does the candidate pick up new skills and technologies?” 

Weave in a question that helps you know if the candidate added value and was helpful to the team:

 “If you had the opportunity, would you rehire this candidate?”

In general, try to touch on:

• job functions

• general performance

• technical expertise

• ability to get along with others

• work habits

• punctuality

• meeting deadlines

• strengths and weaknesses

Don’t ask the wrong questions.

There are, of course, questions that are off-limits both legally, morally and ethically. Avoid all questions related to:

• marital status

• age

• family situation

• if the person has children or is planning a family

• sexual orientation

• disabilities

• religious beliefs

• political views

There are also specific laws in different states that make it off-limits to ask about salary and salary history. This blog gives information on the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act. Be familiar with these laws before asking anything about salary on the reference call.

What about “backdoor references.”

A “backdoor reference” is a reference from a person the hiring manager knows personally, who works at the same company as the candidate – and the candidate doesn’t know the reference is happening. 

This can be helpful (potentially) in getting a totally realistic view of the candidate and their reputation in the company, but I don’t recommend going this route. A backdoor reference may not offer a reliable opinion of the candidate, they may not know the candidate very well, or may only know them in a limited capacity. Additionally, a candidate could eventually find out about a backdoor reference check. This could undermine trust which could be bad not only for the candidate, but for the team. If you do decide to do a backdoor reference, use it as one data point in your process and continue checking references the candidate gave you. 

When done right, references are a crucial part of the hiring process. They offer a view of how the candidate performs in the workplace, and help assess his or her potential for success within the role and company. Reference checks are an integral part of the hiring process that shouldn’t be overlooked.

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