Here’s How to Check References the Right Way

By Robert Half March 19, 2019 at 8:00am

Getting references from your top job candidates’ former employers isn’t as simple as it used to be. Because managers know that revealing too much or too little can have legal consequences, they are increasingly wary of what and how much they say about past employees and their work histories.

Some companies have been sued for not disclosing enough information about former workers, while others have paid enormous settlements because they provided a negative job reference — whether true or false.

Because of these difficulties, rushing through the process of checking references — or bypassing it altogether — in order to quickly staff a position may be tempting to hiring managers, especially those in danger of losing top candidates to competing firms. But even in a competitive candidate market, getting reliable information from a job seeker’s former supervisor is an important step to take before bringing someone on board.

According to a Robert Half survey of 2,800 senior managers in the U.S., respondents reported removing 34 percent of job candidates from consideration for a position after a reference check.

Make the process easier on yourself by reviewing the following reference check tips, sample questions and potential red flags.

3 job reference check tips

Here are three pieces of advice on handling the frequently difficult process of checking references for job candidates you’re considering hiring:

  1. Let the candidate know you check references. Be clear with candidates at the outset of the job interview process that your company will be checking their references. Checking references is perfectly legal as long as the information being verified is job-related and does not violate discrimination laws. Informing applicants that you're checking references can help ensure that the answers they give you during the interview are truthful.
  2. Don't delegate it. If the prospective employee will report directly to you, you should perform the job reference check yourself. You know the position best, and you will likely have corollary questions that may not occur to others. In addition, calling someone at your same level may establish greater camaraderie that will prompt more honest and detailed answers. Checking references is also a great way to gain insight from a former supervisor on how to best manage the individual.
  3. Start with the candidate’s responses. Asking candidates in the job interview what their former employers are likely to say about them can provide you with a good starting point for your reference checks. You can begin by saying something such as, "Joe tells me that you think he was a top performer known for being a consummate team player," and have the employer take it from there.

Sample questions to ask during reference checks

Your questions will vary depending on the requirements of the open position and what you discussed in the interview, but here are a few general questions to consider:

  • What were the candidate’s primary responsibilities?
  • What are their most impressive skills or qualities?
  • What was their most significant accomplishment?
  • What additional training could they benefit from?
  • How did they respond to constructive criticism?
  • Would you rehire then? Why or why not?
  • What are their weaknesses?
  • Is there anyone else you’d suggest I speak with?

Reference check red flags

Additionally, when seeking feedback from your top candidates' former employers, be on alert for the following five warning signs:

  1. Negative feedback. It should go without saying that if a reference doesn't provide a strong assessment of a candidate, you should consider that a red flag. But don't stop there. Ask probing questions to discover why. You may come to suspect, for example, that a former colleague or boss is giving a bad reference that isn't really deserved, perhaps due to past personal conflicts. In that type of situation, conduct several more reference checks with different contacts to confirm or refute the feedback.
  2. 'Don't call this one.' If a candidate submits references and then hints that you should not get in touch with certain people on the list, that's a bad sign. Likewise, if you try to connect with references only to discover you've been given a wrong phone number, the writing may be on the wall that something is amiss. Resist the urge to jump to conclusions, though. Give the candidate a chance to supply new, correct contact information.
  3. Just-the-facts references. Some employers may supply factual references only — that is, just confirming the name, job title and dates of employment. This could indicate a less-than-satisfactory work history, or you may simply be dealing with an employer whose policies don't allow further elaboration. In these cases, replace open-ended questions ("In which areas did they excel on the job?") with more straightforward queries ("Would you rehire them if you had the chance?"). Sometimes a more direct question can get hesitant references to open up.
  4. Inconsistencies. If at any point during the reference check a former employer tells you something that doesn't align with what the candidate indicated in their resume or during the interview, that should set off warning bells. Ask the reference a few more direct questions to make sure you aren't misinterpreting the response. Depending on the extent of the discrepancies, you may want to give the candidate an opportunity to explain.
  5. Excessively glowing references. If the feedback you receive sounds a little too good to be true, it might be. Honest references will candidly share the strengths and weaknesses of their former employee or colleague, especially if you ask the right questions. If the reference can't identify a single thing the candidate can do better, they may not be giving you a complete picture.

Despite the work involved, you shouldn’t shy away from conducting reference checks. The more time and attention you put into vetting a candidate up front, the better your chances of making a great hire — or avoiding a bad one.

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