How to get the most out of reference checks

When it comes to recruitment, reference checks are at the tail end of the process. But this is not the time to let recruitment fatigue hamper your judgement.

In fact, according to Madison’s Auckland Business Manager, Nat Milne, this is a critical opportunity to find out how well your potential new employee is going to fit into your business, and one you don’t want to waste.

“It is absolutely essential to undertake good reference checks,” says Milne.

“No matter how good your intuition is, you want someone else to say ‘yes, you are right’.”

She says regardless of probation periods and trial times, the cost of getting someone into the business and investing in them with training and the lost productivity can be significant if you make the wrong choice.

“Spending 40 minutes to an hour on reference checks is a small price to pay for making sure you have got it right,” says Milne.

Connecting the dots

Di Armbrust, Director of OutcomeHR, says recruitment is about gathering information from the moment you receive their cover letter and resume.

By the time you are past the interviews and up to the reference checks, you have collected lots of detailed threads that you can tie together to tell you not only who this person is and what skills they will bring, but how well they will fit into the culture of your business.

Armbrust says continuity is key to successful recruitment. The same person who contacts the candidate should also be involved in the interview process and the reference checks, so they can pull all the pieces of the picture together.

She says there is a danger in not recognising the hiring process as a risk management strategy – you want to limit the negative impacts a wrong hire could have on your business.

“You are looking for a reason why you shouldn’t employ them, not why you should,” says Armbrust. “You can train for skills so what you should really be looking for is someone who is the right behavioural fit for your business.”

Setting the scene

Before you do a reference check it is important to ensure you have the right people in the right frame of mind.

  • Verify the reference – call the HR department to confirm the referee you will be calling really did work in that role, or if you’ve been given a mobile number ask them to send you an email from their company’s email address, or call them via the company switch board. It’s not unheard of for people to have a mate stand in as their old boss.
  • Prepare to be flexible – you will want to have some core questions prepared to help you probe for the information you are seeking, but don’t just tick the boxes one by one. Listening is essential and you need to be ready to ask follow up questions that dig below the surface answer you have been given. Armbrust suggests practising the interview beforehand with your team or family members, so you get used to thinking on your feet.
  • Respect the referee – you will get a lot more out of the referee if they are relaxed. Be honest about how long you will need to speak to them for – people are time poor, so try to get what you need in under 20 minutes. If they don’t have enough time when you ring, schedule a more suitable time to call. Milne iterates that no one likes being expected to just drop what they are doing, so showing them you respect their time sets the tone for a good interview.

Asking the right questions

Uncovering the good, the bad and the ugly is what Milne says the reference check is all about.

The good reference is easy to get, what you want to know is what challenges to anticipate.

But you don’t have to make the referee feel uncomfortable sharing the not-so-pretty side of their employee. Milne says if you are honest with them and ask the right questions, they can be happy to share information that can later prove extremely valuable.

“It is about helping their next manager manage them well, not about removing them from the process,” says Milne.

“We are really honest and tell the referees that it helps us to know what areas they need to work on and how to understand them. You want to know that you’ve put them with the right manager and if that manager’s style is going to work for them.”

She says asking questions such as the following can let you know what to look out for when they come on board your business:

  • How do you tell when they are stressed?
  • How do they react when things go wrong?
  • What advice would their new manager benefit from?

Armbrust says there is no need to panic if the referee reveals something negative. The information may not be relevant to you, so find out more before you throw the baby out with the bath water.

“Try to understand the culture of the company the person worked for – they may not have been a great fit for their culture, but they might be perfect for your culture.”

Milne agrees. There might be an acceptable reason why they have been behaving a certain way. It is also important to know whether the person is aware their actions were causing a problem because, says Milne, it’s unfair to judge a person when they haven’t been given the opportunity to improve their performance.

Reference check dos and don’ts

  • Do reference check current or previous managers. No one knows a team as intricately as the manager and you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
  • Do interview at least two but no more than three referees. Two helps you to see any patterns and if you haven’t got what you need to know after three, you probably still won’t after four or five.
  • Do ask open-ended questions. Don’t ask leading questions. Get them to ‘comment on’, ‘describe’, or ‘rate on a scale of one to 10’, rather than just asking yes or no questions. Ask for an example if you want more detail.
  • Do include questions that will tell you about their critical behaviours – how they interact with others, how they respond to pressure, how they react when things goes wrong, and whether they are a team player or independent worker.
  • Don’t fill silences. You can tell a lot from a long pause and you might find they end up spilling a few more beans than they intended.
  • Do ask why they left the business and see if it aligns to what the candidate told you.

But the most important thing you can do in the interview, according to Armbrust and Milne, is to listen.

The goal of a reference check is to continually cross-reference the information you have so you need to stay alert for any red flags.

“You have to be really listening, not just for what they are saying, but how they say it,” says Armbrust.

“Be aware of the hesitation factor and dig a little deeper there. It is the questions that flow on from their responses that will get you the most valuable information.”

The deciding factor

A robust reference check can help you confirm what your gut instinct has been telling you all along. If the person is right for your company you should now have a better understanding of what makes them tick, and what weak spots you can develop.

Ring back referees, re-interview the candidate and do what you can to clarify inconsistencies in the stories, but Armbrust’s advice is if the evidence and your instinct are telling you not to hire them, then don’t.

“You are better off walking away from a good person than putting on someone who can cause a problem,” she says.