4 Things to Remember When Checking References for IT Candidates

By Robert Half February 27, 2014 at 4:00pm

You've found the IT candidate for the job: She's got the right combination of technical and non-technical skills for the position, and she's a perfect cultural fit for your firm.

Done, right? If only.

While it's tempting to simply do a cursory job of checking references -- it is an incredibly tight job market to find highly qualified IT candidates in many fields, after all -- this article by Robert Half Technology's senior executive director, John Reed, is a good reminder to slow down and spend time on this essential step in the hiring process.

Reed advises going beyond the reference list an IT candidate offers to get a broader range of feedback, and making sure you're prepared with a list of questions before you call a reference.

Check out the full article below for other great tips on checking references, and why it's such an essential part of hiring the best IT candidate for the job:

As the economy improves, the IT job market is becoming more competitive. Sixteen percent of CIOs surveyed for the latest Robert Half Technology IT Hiring Forecast and Local Trend Report plan to add staff in the first half of 2014, five percent more than the projection for July to December 2013. This scramble for skilled workers is leading some hiring managers to skip or rush through an important part of the hiring process: checking references.

You should always make time to reach out to an applicant’s references. Checking references can give you a more complete picture of a person’s qualifications, accomplishments and work ethic. But only if you take the right approach. Here are some tips for making sure you get the most accurate information when speaking to an IT candidate’s references:

1. Go beyond the list

Naturally, job seekers are going to provide you with names of references who are likely to give a glowing review. But remember that you’re not limited to checking references with those people only.

Gather a broader range of feedback by reaching out to managers and coworkers who aren’t on the core list. Simply asking an “approved” reference who else can speak to the applicant’s work history is a good way to uncover more names. This will allow you to go beyond the possibly biased opinions of two or three of the candidate’s favorite former colleagues.

Keep in mind, though, that some companies have a practice of not giving personal references; they will only verify a former employee’s job title and dates of employment. So you may find there’s a limit to how far from the candidate’s list you can stray when checking references.

2. Check for holes

If the reference list conspicuously excludes a past employer, this could be a red flag. Before jumping to conclusions, however, realize there are many possible reasons for this omission. For instance, maybe a former boss is no longer with the firm, or the company has gone out of business. The applicant also may be concerned that a former employer will not provide an objective review.

So give a candidate the benefit of the doubt when checking references. Ask the job seeker to explain why he or she hasn’t listed a seemingly obvious contact. The person’s answer will help you determine if it’s worth investigating further.

3. Ask the right questions

Prepare a list of questions before picking up the phone to speak to a job seeker’s references. Try to keep your questions more or less consistent when checking references so you have objective criteria by which to evaluate each candidate.

Also, make sure you’re talking with people who can give you the straight scoop. Ask right away how closely and for how long each person worked with the applicant.

Another strategy: Take a statement the applicant made during the interview and ask the reference to verify it. For example: “Morgan told us he played a vital role in upgrading your existing IT systems. Can you tell me more about his contribution to that effort?” Let the reference take it from there. After the call, compare the applicant’s answer to the reference’s assessment.

Another question that can prompt a reference to speak candidly about a candidate: “Would you hire this person again?”

4. Trust your intuition.

When checking references, pay close attention to word choices and tone of voice. (This is one reason it’s best to conduct reference checks by phone, not email.) Brief answers and words like fine and adequate could be signs that a candidate’s former boss or colleague was less than thrilled about the person’s work but wants to avoid saying anything negative.

Long pauses and vague answers should prompt you to ask follow-up questions, as you may have hit on an area of concern. Also, be wary of references who have absolutely no criticism of a previous coworker or employee: No one is perfect.

When it comes to checking references for IT candidates, don’t be afraid to dig deeper to gain a complete picture of a potential hire — warts and all. For the good of your IT department and the entire company, doing a few hours of due diligence can prevent the headaches, expenses and wasted time of making a bad hire.


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