Reference Checks and Red Flags: 5 Warning Signs

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While a stellar resume and a strong interview can help point you to the best candidates for an administrative position within your company, the results of the reference checks you conduct can make or break the deal. When seeking feedback from your top candidates' former employers, be on high alert for the following red flags.

1. Negative feedback

It should go without saying that if a reference doesn't provide a glowing 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 conflict. In that type of situation, your best bet is to 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 another obvious red flag. Likewise, if you try to connect with references only to discover you've been given a wrong telephone number, that's not a good sign.

Resist the urge to jump to conclusions, though. Give the candidate a chance to supply new, correct contact information. The person's reference may have moved, or it could have been a typo.

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.

To determine which is the case during your reference checks, replace open-ended questions ("In which areas did she excel on the job?") with more straightforward queries ("Would you rehire her if you had the chance?"). Sometimes, a more direct question can get silent references to open up.

4. Inconsistencies

If at any point during the reference checks a former employer tells you something that doesn't align with what the candidate indicated in the resume or during the interview, that should set off warning bells. Ask the reference a few more direct questions to make sure that you aren't misinterpreting the response. Depending on the extent of the difference, you may want to give the candidate a chance to explain as well.

5. Overly positive references

If the feedback you receive sounds a little too good to be true, it probably is. 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, he or she may not be giving you a complete picture.