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Reference checks: How to verify a candidate's reference

Feb 05, 2020

Wendy Kennah
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Wendy Kennah
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Today’s workforce is a wild world. Organizations operating on both sides of the border are experiencing record low employment rates, and it's been decades since there's been an economy where the number of open jobs exceeds the number of job seekers.

Hiring teams in North America are contending with a perfect storm of talent and demand challenges-- with 46 per cent of U.S. organizations struggling to fill open positions. And when the cost of a bad hire is an expensive one, a thorough screening process is critical to a successful talent acquisition strategy.

A great interviewer will uncover whether a candidate is capable of performing the job, but their references will provide insights into what he or she is actually like while on the job.

Yet, how can you ensure you’re reaching out to a valid reference?

Although hiring teams should be provided with extensive interview training, many organizations put no structure in place when screening candidate references and can be actually verifying employment with a current BFF rather than a previous boss.  Instead of having candidates 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. So, once you’ve verified the reference, how do you qualify your candidate?

Before extending an offer, the questions below will go beyond a typical “check the box” reference check, and delve deeper into work histories and employment verification.

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

This question will verify that 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.

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.

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.

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.

What are his/her greatest strengths?

The greatest strengths question will uncover 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.

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.

The second part of this question will help 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.

What is his/her ability to take constructive criticism?

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.

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

You’re looking for a high number here. Unless the reference gives the candidate a 10/10, it opens the window for more dialogue. What could the he or she have done or what skills did they need to be a 10?

Why did he/she leave the position?

Unless the candidate was hired for a short term contract 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. 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.

The way your organization screens, hires and onboards talent will have a direct impact on whether or not your contingent worker program is successful in the wild world of talent scarcity.

The war for talent isn't expected to end anytime soon, and organizations will need to be competitive in their approach to attracting and retaining skilled, contingent workers.

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.Get insights

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