Reference checking after a job interview is one of the most important final steps in making a hire. Knowing what the candidate has contributed to previous teams helps clarify what they can bring to the table for you and the organisation they will be joining – and importantly, whether their claims genuinely match their reputation.

In an ideal world, every reference check would yield useful insights that help bring you closer to a recruitment decision. But there are some common challenges hiring managers face when reaching out to references. 

We explore how to tackle those challenges and how to get the most out of candidate reference checks.

Overcoming common challenges when obtaining reference checks

Anyone who regularly hires staff knows there are situations in which obtaining a meaningful reference is difficult. These can include:

  • Company policy may state that only a ‘dates’ reference is allowed versus a full reference
  • The specific line manager for the employee might have left the business and you’re unable to find their updated contact details
  • Former employers might be slow in replying or to give a response
  • The manager may be wary of giving a reference due to fear of being challenged by the former employee if it is negative
  • Due to policy, the company may only be able to provide a HR reference, which, in most cases, will be limited to dates only and not contain specific detail on ability and attitude
  • A compromise agreement was reached with a former employee, restricting the company from passing any comment

If you encounter one of these situations but you believe a candidate is right for the role, ask if they have any alternative references they can provide. 

If not, LinkedIn recommendations can be effective in supporting interview decisions, especially if the previous employer is unable to provide a thorough company reference detailing skills, attitude and reasons for leaving. Check the recommendations section on the candidate’s profile to see if you can glean any valuable insights.

Asking the right reference check questions

During the reference check stage, asking the right questions can mean the difference between an incredibly insightful exercise and a totally useless one. Plan ahead and put together a list of the questions to ask references that will be most useful in helping you make a decision. 

Here are some key questions to consider:

  • Tell me about how you and [candidate name] worked together.
  • For this role, we’re looking for someone who has [mention key skills/experience]. How would you describe [candidate name] in those areas?
  • How would you describe [candidate name]’s work ethic?
  • How did [candidate name] contribute to your team?
  • What do you see as [candidate name]’s biggest strengths?
  • Would you be happy to rehire [candidate name]?

RELATED: Why should the candidate experience matter to you?

General tips for checking references

  • Ask candidate(s) for the names of the previous managers from their last two positions and for permission to contact them
  • Have a simple form for the referee to fill in rather than a blank/open-ended reference
  • Structure your questions around the competencies required for the job to help you assess the candidate’s suitability, particularly if you are deciding between two similar frontrunners
  • Ask about the candidate’s core competencies, as well their work ethic and personality
  • If taking the reference by phone, try to listen to the deliberate word choices, tone and enthusiasm with which the referee describes the candidate. Inflections, long pauses, or hesitations might indicate an issue with the candidate. If this is the case, use your judgement and delve further, as this is your chance to uncover any unknown problems
  • Keep an ear out for over-enthusiastic references without sufficient depth of examples to back up the praise, as they may not be a true representation of the candidate. Ask for brief examples such as how they solved a specific problem, or how they would handle a regular team project scenario

Looking for support with specific hiring needs? Contact Page Personnel’s recruitment consultants today

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