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Candidate Reference Checks: How to verify a reference

Sep 21, 2020

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Performing a candidate reference check before extending a job offer requires a company to gather qualitative information about a candidate's skill set, strengths and weaknesses, character traits and overall ability to perform the job the candidate is being recruited for. The information provided during this stage in the hiring process should be analyzed as indicators as to how the candidate is likely to perform at a future job.

Avoiding the costs of a bad hire is a serious business if your company is looking to get back to business while the world recovers from the coronavirus. And finding the right candidate for the job requires asking the right questions -- to a candidate's reference or references.

Checking references is a critical step that every hiring team must take before initiating a job offer. However, before learning what questions to ask of candidate references, it will help to know why they're so important.

What, exactly, is a candidate reference?

A great interviewer will use strategic questions during a candidate reference check to uncover whether a candidate is capable of performing the job, but their references will provide insights into what that candidate is actually like while on the job.

When conducting a reference check, the company will ask questions that elicit a non-biased opinion of the candidate from a former employer or manager on his or her strengths and weaknesses and overall ability to do the job at the previous company.

It will help to know: A reference check is considered privileged information, and the person giving the reference about a candidates' job performance cannot be legally accountable if the reference was provided as an honest opinion. During the reference check phase, no references can be communicated to any third parties outside the hiring team.

During candidate reference checks, how can a company verify the reference?

Although hiring teams should be provided with extensive interview training, many organizations put no structure in place when checking references, which can result in a company unknowingly verifying employment with a candidate's BFF rather than a previous employer, manager or co-worker who worked along side the candidate on the job.

This means it's important to put reference check structure in place that details questions to ask, which questions not to ask and platforms that can verify the reference's company position. The company's reference check policy should also provide hiring teams with guidance into how to spot red flags of a fake reference.

It will help to know: Before contacting a reference to ask questions, it's important to obtain consent from the candidate. However, a common mistake employers make is asking candidates to present their own references.

Ask: How do I find my candidate reference?

Instead of requesting that a candidate give you a list of their preferred references, request the names and phone numbers of managers from the organizations listed on their resume. It’s a fair request, easily verified on LinkedIn, and if a candidate refuses, an obvious red flag.

What questions are asked in reference checks?

Before extending an offer, the questions below will go beyond a typical “check the box” reference check, and delve deeper into things like work histories and employment verification. During reference checks, the questions below will help verify both references and the candidate.

Ask: What was the contract length, and how long did he/she work with you?

This question will verify things like the dates presented on a candidate’s resume, discussed during the interview and listed on their LinkedIn profile are accurate, confirming that candidate’s employment history and achievements. It will also establish credibility of this reference, as the reference should be aware of these employment dates.

Ask: Did he/she report directly to you and did they achieve any major accomplishments?

Direct supervisors and managers are the most accurate sources of information, and can best give you an indication of the level/quality of work the candidate is capable of producing. You can also verify projects or achievements that candidate listed on their resume and discussed during the interview.

Ask: Would he/she be considered for a re-hire if the resources were available?

This question will give an overall feel for the experience of working with this candidate—whether the candidate can truly perform their task and whether they were able to work well with co-workers. You’ll want to listen for words like “absolutely,” or “definitely,” and they should be said without hesitation.

Ask: How did he/she get along with co-workers?

This question will provide insight as to how the candidate will fit in with the team dynamic and whether he or she would be a likable addition to the organization. Often times, regardless of how qualified a candidate is, if they’re not easy to get along with, he or she is a detriment to the team and a contract will not be renewed. A good reference will also be able to provide workplace antidotes in regards to the candidate’s personality and work habits.

Ask: What are his/her greatest strengths?

The greatest strengths question will help you know how the reference’s response aligns with the candidate’s self-assessment—giving insight into not only their strengths, but the candidate’s level self-awareness. It's also an open ended question, and often comments can lead to some interesting facts or stats about the candidate.

Ask: What areas of improvement could he/she work on, and were there any instances within the first 90 days where they may need additional support?

This question serves a dual purpose. Asking for areas of improvement rather than for greatest weaknesses will solicit more “real” feedback, as it’s human nature to perceive the term weakness with a negative connotation and references can be hesitant in painting a candidate in a negative light.

It will help to know: The second part of this question will determine if the candidate is coachable and can hit the ground running, or if he or she will require time to catch on. If you’re looking to fill a short term role, you may not want to extend an offer to a candidate who requires additional training.

Ask: What is his/her ability to take constructive criticism?

Questions regarding criticism will determine a candidate’s ability to take direction or handle constructive criticism will indicate how they manage workplace relationships and demonstrate their level of interest in honing their skills. A candidate who fights back or is unable to accept an educated opinion may not be the best fit for the team, compared to a candidate that is committed to ongoing development.

Ask: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate him/her compared to other people you've hired?

Unless the reference gives the candidate a 10/10, these types of questions opens the window for more dialogue. What could the he or she have done better on the job or what skills did they need to be a 10?

Ask: Why did he/she leave the position?

Unless the candidate was hired for a short term contract rather than a full-time job and the resources weren’t available to re-hire him or her, this question will validate what the candidate told you about their reason for seeking a new opportunity.

Is there anyone else in the organization you recommend I speak to?

It never hurts to get different perspectives on how someone performed on the job. A manager may recommend that you speak to a co-worker who worked directly alongside the candidate, who can provide direct feedback on what it's like to work with him or her on a day-to-day basis and their ability to collaborate within a team. Asking questions of co-workers and other department managers are also good references.

Checking candidate references by asking the right questions is essential to to finding the right fit for the job.

Are you looking for talent? Get insights into designing a contingent workforce program that works for you with our Guide to designing a high-impact talent acquisition strategy. 

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