The Do’s and Don’ts of Reference Checking

Reference checks are an integral part of a successful interview process and especially important when recruiting management and executive positions. People will often embellish the truth about what they’ve done but reference checks can help confirm what has been presented in a resume and discussed during an interview. Even more importantly, they can give an insight into the actual performance level and quality of work they have done in the past. You can also get a better understanding of how a candidate fits in with a team and the culture that would suit them, as well as finding out the best ways of managing them going forward.

What type of reference is best?

Always go for a professional reference from a direct manager as the first option, as recent as possible. If that isn’t possible then a more senior manager who had direct involvement with the candidate. References from colleagues, peers, or personal references are not able to give you the insight you need to make an informed hiring decision.

How to approach reference checking

Make sure you have a structured and standardised approach to reference checking. To remove any bias, you need to ask the same questions for all candidates being considered. Have your questions structured in a way that is engaging to ensure you are not jumping all over the place as you may miss important information.

The legalities of reference checks

When putting together your processes for reference checks, you must be aware of the laws that are in place that guide what you can and cannot ask, and how you go about obtaining the reference.

You must remember that to obtain any reference, you need get approval from the candidate to speak to a specific person. Even if you know someone that worked with the candidate, legally, you cannot ask them about the candidate’s suitability for a role without getting approval from the candidate first. Unfortunately, it still happens, and most of the time the employer knows they are not allowed to do it. But you should be aware of the implications if it comes back to the candidate and they decide to act on their privacy rights.

There are certain questions you cannot ask during a reference check and they include anything that does not directly relate to the candidate’s ability to perform their job. Questions about their race, religion, sexuality, marital status, number of children, or disability should never be asked. These are considered “protected class” and cannot be a factor in hiring decisions.

“No reference” policies

It can sometimes be challenging obtaining a professional reference due to an increase in the use of “no reference” policies by companies, barring current employees from giving out anything except the most basic information. To be honest it’s not surprising considering the fact that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission secured $484 million for victims of discrimination in the workplace in 2017, and that figure has been increasing year on year.

If a candidate has worked for a company with a “no reference” policy, there are other ways to gather the information you need. You could use previous employees of that company who are no longer bound by the “no reference” policy. Another option is if the candidate has a record of their performance reviews, these can also be used as a reference if they are detailed enough.

Refine your reference check process

We conduct thorough reference checks as it is imperative to get enough detail. For some high-level positions, this can take up to an hour. It is important to refine your processes to be as efficient as possible by having a standardised and structured approach. There are now many automated reference checking systems now that can make the process much quicker but you may find that to get a better insight you need to speak with the referee so you can gauge from their tone of voice what they are not saying and delve into more detail if necessary.

Every company should have a set process for reference checking.  Keep them clear, concise, and as detailed as possible.  What system do you currently use?  Do you have processes, or do you outsource to either another person or an automated system?