March 29, 2022
March 29, 2022

How to Conduct a Reference Check

Lewis Mc Cahill

It’s the final step of the interview process. The candidate has shown themselves to be a valid addition to your team, but are they really who they say they are? 

Reference checks can be a highly valuable tool not just in recruitment, but also in how you manage the growth and development of your future hires. People are, in general, very self-aware of their own talents and shortcomings. However, sometimes we don’t see habits or skills that others may see. 

Reference checks are an excellent way for you to learn how other people see your new hire. They can be a vital part of the candidate's experience, but It’s not entirely about their expertise — it’s more about how they interact with others and the effect they have on people. 

But how can you effectively conduct a reference check? 

I asked our Talent Partners, who collectively have performed thousands of these reference checks, and here are their most important pieces of advice. 

Best Questions to Ask for a Reference Check

A candidate will often tell you their role consisted of many responsibilities and covered a wide range, but sometimes speaking to their manager or peer will show you exactly how they managed and adjusted to these tasks. They have seen first-hand how they work in certain situations, and you can use that information to help you make your final decision. 

One of the most important things you can do is ensure that you are speaking to the right person.

People will often choose references that will portray them in the best light. In order to get a good reference, your first goal is to check if they directly worked with this person and whether they can even give you an accurate insight into their daily work habits. 

Also, see which companies they don’t provide references for. It’s rarely the case that it’s because of something insidious, sometimes there’s just nobody at that position they feel can provide the best answers. But if you feel like you’re not getting the full picture, then simply ask the candidate if they have any references available for that specific position. 

One of the worst things you can do is go behind the candidate’s back. Ask for their consent to reach out to references, always. If they have difficulty providing any, it may be for a wide range of reasons, but give them the benefit of the doubt. 

Finally, if a reference is from a number of years ago, remember that people change, improve and develop. Shortcomings that they may have had several years ago could be a thing of the past. 

However, if there is a recurring theme that appears, pay attention to it. It may seem like a waste to reject a candidate at the final hurdle, but it’s better to start the process again than hire someone you don’t have 100% faith in. 

Now, let’s get into the best way to approach the reference call..

The Reference Call

First off, don’t forget the basics. Ask about their position, how long they worked there, and whether they were promoted or received any other bonuses or rewards. Be an investigator, find out the core details before building up a larger character profile. 

However, don’t be overly detail-oriented, just be sure that the candidate is not overselling themselves. 

One of the best questions you can ask in a reference check is: 

“What do you recognise as this candidate’s strongest skills?”

This will take the referee out of the day-to-day thinking about this candidate and more on their deeper values. It will also show you what kind of effect they had on their manager: what resonated, what didn’t, etc. 

It’s also interesting to see what your candidate sees as their strongest skill, and what their peers see. 

It may also be the case that the new role being offered is not related to the old position, but not to worry. You can still focus on the skills and characteristics of the candidate rather than their experience. 

Let’s say they’re moving from B2C sales to B2B. It may be a different customer base, but you can still ask about their lead generation abilities, how they managed to empathise with customers, and how they managed the sales process. 

Another favourite question of our Talent Partners is: 

“Did this candidate have any major accomplishments while working with you?”

This opens up a whole door of evaluation. Not only does it show you the best values of the candidate, but it also shows you what the candidate fails to see about themselves. In a long career, we can often forget about some of our best achievements or projects, whereas those involved may still remember them well. 

Finally, one of the most important questions to ask is: 

“Would you hire this candidate again?”

Within that simple question is all that you’re looking for. It may seem a little confrontational, but it will sum up the referee’s opinion of the candidate quickly and succinctly. 

These questions and approaches can help you significantly in getting a better picture of your candidate. 

However, it’s almost as important to know what not to ask

What Not to Ask During a Reference Check 

Above all, don’t focus on negative aspects or questions that may incite bias. 

For example, don’t ask: 

What do you think this candidate needs to improve?” 

Instead, ask: 

“How did this candidate improve while working in your organization?”

We all have shortcomings and misgivings. But it’s not our insufficiencies that define us, but how we approach and improve upon them. Some people may have issues with managing or project prioritizing, but those are things that can be taught, if the person is willing. 

Find out about their drive and commitment to educating and improving themselves. After all, this can be one of the most vital qualities in any candidate. 

Next, make sure that you don’t ask questions such as: 

What didn’t you like about working with this candidate?”

This is an inherently biased question, that can often lead to a skewed view of their working style or experience. Instead, once again, focus on their personal drive to improve or develop themselves. For example, ask: 

What did this candidate do to improve their performance?”

“What did this candidate do to develop their skills?”

“How did this candidate help to improve the overall performance of the team?”

In these positive-leaning answers, you see the good qualities of the candidate. Secondly, by what is not mentioned, you can fill in the blanks of what they may need to improve or develop.

If teamwork or project management or problem-solving aren’t mentioned by the referee, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the candidate doesn’t possess these skills. It just means that they may not have been given the opportunity to showcase them.

Overall, it’s best to focus on the positives and try to keep an unbiased view of the whole situation. 

We’ve discussed unconscious bias on a number of occasions, and reference checks may be one of the most important situations. Remember not only to keep your own biases in check but also to be aware of the possible unconscious biases of the referee. 

Above All, Be Objective

Reference checks are to ensure that your candidate is who they say they are. Referees will give you a great insight into this, but just make sure not to lead them or to overly sway the conversation. 

Listen, empathetically, and try to get a full understanding of the candidate and their qualities. Answer questions that focus on development, self-progression, and their successes — not their shortcomings or misgivings. 

Want to learn more about how to create a stellar hiring process? You can find plenty of expert hiring advice in our playbooks, guides, and how-to’s on our website. 

Want to work with us? We're always on the lookout for new talent. You can find all our open roles on the careers page

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