For some managers, employment references are just a resume tack-on, barely worth a glance. The truth is, checking job references can be invaluable when it comes to thoroughly evaluating your candidates.

OfficeTeam research shows that managers eliminate job candidates from the running at a rate of one in five after contacting their references. But some managers still feel it is a waste of time, not to mention a potential legal risk; in fact, many employers avoid both asking and answering reference check questions because they fear potential lawsuits. In this article, Robert Half's expert career professionals seek to do away with any confusion, and emphasize instead why checking references is an important step in the candidate evaluation process not to be overlooked. The key is to know which questions to ask and to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Here are four tips to keep your reference checks smooth, effective and trouble-free:

1. Ask the right questions

When calling references, try to set a low-key, informal tone from the start and avoid jumping right into your most pressing inquires. References will be more prone to honesty if they are relaxed. So, start with a few basic background questions, such as the candidate’s length of employment, duties and skills, and salary information. Next, move into the tougher questions that will give you a more well rounded assessment of the candidate:

  • What are his weaknesses?
  • How does she compare to the current worker in the position?
  • How often was he absent or late?
  • What types of people did she have difficulty working with?
  • Would you rehire him in the future?

2. Do it yourself

Many managers are tempted to pass the buck and delegate the task of checking references to someone else on the team. However, no one knows what you’re looking for in a new hire better than you. A candidate’s former or current employer is also likely to take the call more seriously if they’re speaking to a fellow manager.

Robert Half has been finding A-list candidates for companies since 1948. Let us take on the time-consuming steps and the administrative details of bringing a new person on board.

3. Talk to the right people

Employers may decide to delegate on the receiving end of these calls, too, so don’t be surprised if you contact a reference and find yourself talking to an assistant or someone in human resources instead. The problem here is you’re more likely to receive standard, perfunctory answers that won’t give you the insight you need. When you make a job reference call, make every effort to speak to the candidate’s manager, coworkers or anyone who worked directly with them.

4. Confirm important claims

Job reference calls are an opportunity to confirm anything candidates said during the interview process, including why they’re leaving their current job. Before placing the call, take a few minutes to give those claims critical thought so you can dig a little deeper. For example, if a candidate claimed he was looking for a better salary or greater challenges, ask his employer why he wasn’t given those opportunities at his former job. If he lost his job due to outsourcing or other external reasons, ask why he wasn’t transferred into another position at the company. This type of careful questioning can help you avoid jumping to conclusions when you spot potential red flags regarding a candidate.

Checking job references is a time-consuming process, but it’s nothing compared to dealing with the repercussions of making a bad hire. The effort you put into contacting candidates’ references will pay off when you find the perfect person for the job.

Learn more about tips on how to handle the often difficult process of checking references for job candidates you are interested in hiring.