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The 10 Do's and Don'ts of Reference Checking

reference check

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We all have certain parts of our jobs that fill us with dread. Ok, dread might be a tad dramatic. Let’s just say that we all have parts of our jobs that we like to do a little bit less than others. (Very diplomatic, we know..) For recruiters, this, more often than not, tends to be reference checking. The debate over whether or not reference checking is really necessary is becoming more and more prevalent in the world of recruitment; between legal and liability concerns and falsified information, it’s easy to see why some recruiters feel that reference checking is more trouble than it’s worth.

Now, you could go down the technological route and invest in some web-based reference checking systems, like SkillSurvey, Checkster or Chequed, which use behavioural science and analytics to assess candidates, or you could stick with the traditional route. Ultimately, most employers agree that reference checking is a worthwhile exercise when it’s done well. That’s where we come in.  Today we’re sharing our 10 Do’s and Don’ts of reference checking, which should hopefully make the process a little less tedious and a little more productive.

1: DO…arrange the reference check in advance

sweating waiting for a reference to be called

You should never call a referee out of the blue. This is just basic manners.  Nobody in their right mind wants to have to take a phone call on the fly where they have to talk about a current or past employee. They’re going to want time to prepare. Send an email explaining that you’re doing a reference check on the candidate and that you were looking for a suitable time that they would be available to talk to you. Similarly, you should never do a reference check without getting consent from the candidate first. The last thing that you should want from your potential new hire is for them to be sweating bullets every time their boss’ phone rings, especially before they’ve handed in their notice.

2: DON’T…pass the job off on someone else

passing on reference checking to someone else

You might think that you simply don’t have the time to be checking references, but it’s so important that you find a way to make the time. Passing the task off to another member of staff (particularly if it’s someone that is less senior or less experienced) is a massive no-no. Believe it or not, we’ve heard of companies getting interns to do reference checks during busy periods. Cutting corners like this not only makes your company look unprofessional, but it puts the onus on someone else to report back on the things that you should be hearing and interpreting yourself.

3: DON’T…rely solely on LinkedIn recommendations as references

LinkedIn endorsements

A shining recommendation on LinkedIn from a previous employer or colleague does not a reference make. Ask yourself this – does the information that’s contained in the recommendation answer all of the questions that you’d be asking if you were to pick up the phone and talk to that person one-on-one? Chances are, it doesn’t.

4: but DO…cross reference what you’re told on LinkedIn

cross check Linkedin references

After you do the reference check over the phone, make sure that you go back to the candidate’s LinkedIn profile and cross reference the information that you’ve been given. This includes job titles, duties and dates of employment. It’s here that you’ll discover whether or not some of the finer details have been embellished by the candidate.

5: DO…ask open questions

open ended questions

How much information are you really going to get from yes or no answers? The whole purpose of completing a reference check is to determine whether the candidate has the qualifications, skills, and necessary attributes to perform well in the job. Asking closed questions isn’t going to help you on your way to figuring out if this is the best person for the job. So take a look at the list of questions that you generally ask and see if any of them could easily be answered with a simple yes or no. From there you can see what you potentially need re-word or expand on.

Closed Question: “Would you say that Mary excels when it comes to attention to detail?”

Open Question: “What would you consider Mary’s biggest strengths to be?”

6: DO…give a couple of different options to complete the reference check

reference check options

Not all referees are going to have the time to chat with you on the phone. You may think “Well, I have to make the time, so why shouldn’t they?!” But what if the referee is a Sales Manager that spends 90% of the year travelling to conferences and sales pitches? It’s important to give them a couple of options to complete the reference when you’re emailing to schedule a suitable time. This can be a Skype call, email or phone call.  Try to be as flexible as you can – the more accommodating you are, the quicker you’ll get the information that you need to complete the hiring process.

7: DO…take what you’re told with a grain of salt.

As important as it is to do reference checking, it’s just as important to take what your told by referees with a little grain of salt. Not only are you just hearing one person’s opinion, but said person could, as a result, be losing a member of their team to go and work with you. Maybe that’s going to leave the department under serious pressure, or be a massive headache for the hiring manager. Or maybe the referee is just having a bad day! Use your judgement and try not to take everything that you’re told as absolute fact.

8: DON’T…manipulate the person into giving you the answers you want to hear

what you want to hear

When you’ve 99% made your mind up that a particular candidate is the right fit for your company, you’ll be praying that their references match up. Nine times out of ten they will, but it’s very important that you don’t manipulate the referee into telling you what you want to hear by the way you phrase your questions.  Reference checks aren’t a time to be asking rhetorical questions like ‘So Mary was a very competent employee, would that be fair to say?’ Be fair to all candidates by asking the types of questions that will give you well-rounded, informative answers, not just tell you what you want to hear.

9: DO…know the law


Legal implications are VERY important when it comes to checking references. Depending on what country you’re in, it’s vital that you know the corresponding privacy laws and regulations surrounding reference and background checks. You should NEVER be asking for information that could be used to discriminate. This basically includes anything that doesn’t directly relate to the person’s ability to do the job. Have a look here at 10 interview questions you should never ask a candidate to make sure that you are not asking a referee to disclose the answers to these questions in a roundabout way.

10: DO…have a standardised process in place 


This is without a doubt the most important point of all. What you do for one candidate you need to do for ALL candidates. Why would you do a thorough reference check on one person and not bother with the next? You need to have a structure in place for performing reference checks, that way everyone is on the same playing ground. As well as that, having structure and consistency should make reference checking less of a nuisance because it will just become second nature to you.

We want to hear your thoughts on reference checking. Do you have a structured process in place when you’re checking references? Do you think it’s all just a big ol’ waste of time? Let us know. Tweet us using the hashtag #referencechecking and let’s get the conversation flowing!

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