Conducting reference checks is one of those issues that business owners face frequently. More so, they face the dilemma of whether to actually check them or not.
Yet in my experience and in those of my clients, this should never, ever be an optional step. Yes, it’s time-consuming. And yes, we like to think our interview process and our intuition is so dialed in that ill-suited candidates won’t make the cut.
But as anyone who has ever done any hiring will tell you — that’s just not realistic. We’ve all had that one who’s gotten through and then we were completely blindsided when things went awry. Skipping this step of the hiring process may save you time. But a bad hire is certainly more time-consuming…and costly to boot!
Here are the DO’s and DON’Ts for conducting effective employee reference checks.
DO set your minimum. Decide how many references you will check for each potential new hire. A general rule of thumb is a minimum of three for hourly employees and twice that — a minimum of six — for managerial candidates. The higher the position, the more references you should verify.
DO keep detailed records. Have a system in place to track the data and information obtained from each reference check. Not doing so can undermine all of your efforts to really drill down into each candidate’s character and work history and make comparisons between the front runners. Something as simple as a spreadsheet can be a huge help to track responses as well as the contact information for each reference.
DO have candidates make the connection. When employees fill out an application, they not only list their job history but also professional references. Ideally, you don’t want to cold call references — many will be much more accommodating and willing to talk if you have the candidates provide a quick introduction and explicitly give the reference permission to speak with you.
One way to do this is to include a brief disclosure on the application such as, “At XYZ Company, we believe in checking references for new employees. To facilitate this process, please only list references for whom you have granted permission to speak with an XYZ representative about your former or current employment. By listing their contact information below, you are stating this permission has been granted.”
DO expect to get the cold shoulder. Unfortunately, some companies have adopted a “no reference check” policy. So if you call one of these companies, instead of meaningful insights about the candidate, you may receive only the offer of an employment verification letter which confirms dates of employment, position held, and salary.
DON’T go in blind. When you call or meet with references, have a general script in front of you just to ensure you get the conversation started on the right foot. This doesn’t need to be long and drawn out — these people are busy too and you want to make this a smooth and quick encounter for all involved. After introducing yourself and explaining the reason for the meeting, briefly explain a bit about your company culture and the position for which you are hiring.
Have this drilled down to two to three sentences tops. This way the former manager has some company background and he/she can provide input as to whether the candidate will align with the specific culture and role.
DON’T ask closed-ended questions. The whole point of contacting references is to gain unique perspectives and information about the candidate. This can’t be done by asking closed-ended questions and getting a terse “yes” or “no” answer. Stick with open-ended questions instead, like the ones below. Let’s assume you’re calling about a candidate named Alice:
- What were Alice’s primary job responsibilities?
- What unique qualities or characteristics come to mind when you think of Alice?
- What would you say are Alice’s greatest weaknesses or areas in which additional support or training would be most helpful?
- When constructive criticism was needed, how did Alice respond in these instances?
- Please tell me about three ways in which Alice made your organization better.
- How do you think Alice will perform within this role and our organization as a whole?
- Would you rehire Alice if the opportunity arose? Why or why not?
- Is there anything else you would like to share about Alice?
Of course, these questions will vary depending on the type of position for which you are hiring. Here is a nice summary of potential questions.
DON’T hire out the task. Reference checking can be time-consuming, but so can hiring the wrong candidate. Part of the art of this process is the personal touch — speaking manager to manager, supervisor to supervisor. Hiring a reference checking service may save you time, but losing the ability to read the body language or interpret the vocal intonations of references can come at a cost.
DON’T cross the legal line. Know where to draw the line from a legal standpoint. There are certain questions that you absolutely cannot ask about, including questions regarding the candidate’s:
- Racial, ethnic, or religious background
- Sexual preference
- Marital status and family composition
Consider initiating employee reference checks for your potential new hires. If this seems like an overwhelming commitment, just pledge to do so for the first quarter. The difference in your hiring decisions — and the quality that properly screened employees can bring to your company — may just make you a believer.