4 Steps to Conducting a QUALITY Reference Check
Updated: Jan 3
Resume? Check. Interview? Check. Degree Verification? Check. Reference Check? Is it really necessary? All I’m going to get is verification of previous employment dates, right?
Minus the push for more creative resumes and lengthier interview processes, there have been few significant changes in the hiring protocol used by most companies… save for one: the reference check. Confusing legal guidelines have resulted in many larger companies refusing to provide anything other than the verification of employment, dates, and rehire eligibility. In fact, surveys indicate that while 80%+ of companies actually conduct a reference check before making a hire, many complain about the lack of information gathered from the reference.
In fact, a significant portion of our own clients tell us not to worry about completing a reference check. Needless to say, we do them anyway. Why? Because the value that can be derived from a quality reference check is significant. Given the constraints that often surround completing a reference check, how is it possible to gain true insight into a potential new hire?
Leverage your network. Reaching out to a candidate’s previous boss is not the only tool at your fingertips. Chances are, your potential new hire worked with a variety of people- many of whom are in your professional network. Connecting with these people will provide insight beyond verification of employment. Questions about a candidate’s ability to collaborate, his leadership qualities, and areas of growth can all be answered by connecting with the people you know who also know the candidate.
Engage with the reference. The key to a quality reference check is engaging with the reference, building rapport and never accepting the first answer as gospel. True, a reference is likely to provide a positive reference (or she wouldn’t be on the reference list in the first place). However, with the right questions, even a candidate’s best friend can provide useful and candid feedback.
Do NOT ask open-ended questions. “Is Bob Smith eligible for rehire?” and “Can you verify the dates Sally worked for you, along with her title.” Do not qualify as a quality reference check. Even the standard “Tell me about Sally” is worthless because there is no context for the type of role and culture the candidate will be immersed in. Instead, ask specific, situationally and behavioral questions. Example: “Tom will be working as a Marketing Director for a 6 year old software company that just hit $10m in revenues. The environment is very similar to a start-up, where everyone wears multiple hates, and is expected to work 50-60 hours/week while embracing the fluid and constantly changing priorities. How do you think he will fare in this type of situation?”
Call a reference that is NOT on the candidate’s list. Want to gain a completely unbiased and unrehearsed opinion about your potential hire? Ask someone who has not been given a heads up. Keep in mind that in order to paint a reliable picture of a candidate there must be multiple sources to provide information. Therefore, contacting several of the provided references in addition to a few that were not provided can give a broader, and possibly more accurate, view. Just be careful about who you call to ensure that you don’t break confidentiality or jeopardize the candidate’s position before they have given notice.
It is important to peel back the onion to uncover the true make up of a candidate. While both resumes and in-person interviews provide insight into many of the skills she brings to a new role, the only way to obtain a clear picture of how those skills play-out in the work environment is by communicating with the people who have worked closest with him/her. Leveraging your network to ask specific, situational and behavioral questions about a potential new hire will allow you to engage in a quality reference check.
About the Authors:
Ken Schmitt is the President and Founder of TurningPoint Executive Search and the Sales Leadership Alliance. Specializing in placing sales, marketing and operations professionals across the country, Ken’s 16 years of recruiting experience have equipped him with the knowledge to serve as a thought partner to his clients for all recruiting, hiring and human capital-related initiatives. Ken sits on the board of Junior Achievement, the American Marketing Association, the San Diego HR Roundtable and is an Advisory Board Member for San Diego Sports Innovators (SDSI).
Vicky Willenberg has served as the Social Media Manager for TurningPoint since 2011. In 2014, she was elevated to Digital Marketing Manager, broadening her participation across all things digital for the firm. A former teacher with a Masters in Education, Vicky is an active and published blogger at The Pursuit of Normal and a marketing professional. She has her finger on the pulse of the latest trends in the recruiting, hiring and leadership sectors.