Tips for candidate reference checks


HIRING people can be a real challenge for businesses today.

As an employer, you not only have to assess a person’s skills and experience in a fairly short period of time, you also have to assess their “fit” with your team – business, their desire to work for you (in this job versus any old job) and even their future potential.

Getting it wrong can be a costly and time-consuming exercise. Once you’ve been through all the hard work of advertising, shortlisting and interviewing it can be tempting to move straight to the “when can you start?” question with your preferred candidate.

However, the final stages in the process – making quite sure you’ve chosen wisely – are just as important as the earlier phases.

One of the key components of this phase is reference checking. Often underrated, reference checks allow you to validate the experience and qualifications – as well as the performance – of your preferred candidate with people who used to work with them.

And don’t fall into the trap of thinking reference checks are worthless because no one will provide the details of a referee who will give them a bad report.

They sometimes do and, in any case, effective reference checks can help you extract and sort the real, useful comments from any waffle and fluff.

Some tips:

  • Advise the candidate that you will be conducting reference checks so that they can let people who will act as referees know to expect your call.
  • Complete at least two reference checks to obtain a more rounded view of the candidate. Two reference checks will help you see patterns and consistency of performance and behaviour.
  • Speak with referees yourself, don’t rely entirely on written references.
  • Respect that the referee is likely to be busy, so tell them upfront how long you anticipate the call will take, and – if necessary – schedule the call for a more convenient time.
  • If possible, speak with people that the candidate used to report to, rather than colleagues or clients.
  • Speak with people that the candidate has worked with recently (i.e. no more than five years ago). People can change a lot and a report from longer ago may not be accurate, nor is the referee likely to remember much detail about the candidate’s performance.
  • Have a series of open-ended questions planned (“describe / comment on / tell me about”), particularly around any items you may not be 100% certain on after the interview. Ask questions specifically relevant to key aspects/requirements of the job the candidate has applied for.
  • Don’t panic if the referee says something negative. It may – or may not – be relevant or important in the context of the job you are looking to fill.
  • It’s as much about what referees don’t say as what they do say about the candidate. Read between the lines, take note of awkward pauses, and if the answer is unclear, probe for more information.
  • Finish with that all-important-question: “Would you hire them again, given an opportunity in the future?” Is there hesitation? This could be a telling sign.

Working methodically through the reference checking process can help you validate your gut feel and we can help! We can manage your recruitment for you from go to whoa, or simply assist with key steps throughout the process. Call us on 1300 783 211 for more information or check out

Margot Gallagher is an executive with, HR Success.

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