When conducting reference checks to finalise a role within an organisation, it is important that organisations understand what their legal obligations are, as failure to do so can be very expensive.
Interviewing and spending time with a candidate is vitally important. But conducting a thorough reference-checking process is also a vital indicator of success/failure when looking at a candidate. When a candidate provides referee details to you as part of their application process, they have given you permission to contact that referee for a reference.
However, sourcing your own independent references from people in your network, who may know the candidate, is dangerous. You should always gain permission from the candidate, preferably in writing, before you speak to anyone regarding their application for your role. Even if you don’t keep a record of the conversation, the referee may be subpoenaed in the event of litigation. Background profiling can also be helpful so you can conduct social media research which is in the public domain.
Because reference checking often takes place near the end of what can be a lengthy interview process for a much-needed hire, organisations often do cursory checks – hoping that “good enough” will suffice. In fact, a thorough refe
rence check can be the difference between a successful hire, a failure or even a missed opportunity.
When speaking to the referee, before you start, you should inform them that the candidate has the right to vie
w a record, taken by you, of anything that they say. That record, along with all other documents, must be kept in the candidate/employee file for at least seven years.
While there are many nuances to doing a thorough reference check, there are a number that
stand out to me as the most underused – and which I would argue are the most essential:
- First, you should have a game plan going into the reference discussion. What are the areas you want to focus on? What are the specific questions you want to ask? You are looking for areas for improvement as well as positives so make sure you have a plan to find them! Questions should focus on the most important areas of concern: relevant knowledge needed to do the job, their management, leadership and interpersonal skills and their overall personality and behavior.
- Ask the right questions, especially of the references your candidate supplies. Clearly the candidate is not going to put forward a referee who is going to give them a bad reference, so it’s important to dig deep behind the obvious answers.
- Ask open-ended questions about the candidates’ behaviors and get specific examples (e.g., “can you describe how the person exhibited leadership skills?”), not yes or no questions. Most importantly, don’t settle for vague answers such as “He/She is an experienced leader.” If you get an answer like that, ask the reference for an example of the candidate’s leadership
- Tempering your reaction to the information you receive so you avoid jumping to conclusions based on any one person’s comments. Not everybody likes everybody, so consider that if the reference is particularly bad let the candidate know and ask for another connection. Remember you are dealing with peoples’ lives here, so tread carefully.
- As much as possible, always seek specific information about the candidate’s work and behaviors, rather than generalities.
This only touches on reference checks, but the whole area of privacy for the candidate is a potential minefield for the unsuspecting employer. It can leave you open to litigation if a candidate feels that they have been discriminated against or have not been fairly considered. Some legislation is also different depending on the State you are in.