Are You Doing Reference Checks the Right Way?

by Tiffany Appleton, Johnson & Hill Staffing Services

Do you ever wish you could skip the reference checking portion of the interview process? It just seems so time consuming and you know they are only going to provide you with names of people who are going to say good things, so why bother? Your time is valuable and could be well spent elsewhere, right? Maybe, but if you approach your reference checking process a little differently, you may find it to be super helpful in both deciding on whether to make the hire and how to best manage the new hire once on board.

The first thing you should always do when checking a reference is to verify the nature of the working relationship between the potential hire and reference. Ideally, you are looking for a supervisor or managerial reference. You should be asking a question like “what was the nature of your working relationship with Susie?” If there is any question whether this person was a supervisor, you should follow-up with a direct question like “Did Susie report directly to you?” or “Were you responsible for Susie’s performance review?” Knowing the exact relationship here will provide context for the rest of the information you learn from the call.

From here, there are two basic ways to proceed, either with directed questions, or a general open-ended conversation. There are pros and cons for each.

The open ended approach can work well because you may learn things about the candidate that never came up in the interview process. This approach can allow for follow-up and clarifying questions too. Just be aware, the reference is going to stay very far away from anything negative and you will never learn about any challenges they may have had or any weaknesses.

With directed questions, you get to ask about exactly what you really want to know. This can work well for things like dependability, duties and responsibilities, and soft skills/personality traits. Just make sure your questions are phrased properly to uncover the information you are seeking. “Tell me about Susie’s dependability” is very different from “Was Susie consistently dependable?”

The ideal approach may be to ask a few key directed questions, and then follow-up with “What else should I know about Susie that we haven’t already discussed?” Be very attentive, because many times it is not what the reference says, it’s what they didn’t say that you should be keying in on.

If you perform multiple reference checks (and you should) it is very helpful to think about the common themes that shone through. These should be their key personality traits, the tasks they love to perform, and likely their preferred management style. One of the best things I learn through reference checks is how to best manage the new employee to ensure I am getting their best performance and they are appropriately challenged and happy.

Given the potential legal consequences, you know the person on the other end of the phone will choose their words carefully, and focus on the positive. But there are still many ways to ensure you get very useful information out of that 5-10 minute conversation