Is reference checking worthwhile? Yes, if you do it right. By Peter Maguire

Whether or not checking references is worth your time is a question that is often asked and, like lots of things in business, the answer is, “that depends on how you do it.”

Properly structured and executed, reference checks can be invaluable. They provide a real opportunity to explore the candidate’s fit with your business and the role in question through the lens of others’ ‘real life’ experiences with and knowledge of them.

However, too often, there is a standardised HR procedure with generic questions ostensibly designed to ensure equal opportunity in the selection process, but which delivers little real intelligence about the candidate’s fit with your business and the role in question.

Here are our rules for conducting effective reference checks.

Rule #1: Do your preparation

Understand the role that you are recruiting to, the skills and knowledge that are necessary to perform the role effectively and the character attributes that exemplify your culture.

As you should do throughout the recruitment and selection process, think about the best ways that you can ascertain whether someone has those qualities.

Consider what you have learned about this candidate in the recruitment process to date – what, based on the evidence at your disposal, you have reasonably determined that you are satisfied with and what you still have questions about.

One simple way to do this is to get out a set of highlighters (physically or electronically) then look at the Position Description for the role and use the traffic light method to work through each function and attribute to give you a good graphic picture of where the candidate is at – green means ‘yes’, yellow is ‘maybe’ and red is ‘no’. Using this assessment, consider why you think that and how you can best ask potential referees the questions that you need to get answers to.

Rule #2: Purposefully design the conversation

Remember that you need to know if this person is a fit with the role in your business and your culture – not the referee’s.

Also remember that the referee can only effectively answer your questions if you firstly engage with them in a positive way and secondly give them the information on your needs so that they can respond in the right context.

So, in planning your conversation, you need to:

  • Verify that the person is happy to act as a referee for the candidate and that the time is OK with a clear indication of how long it is likely to take (book a time that is convenient for the referee);
  • Provide a concise explanation of the nature of your business, the desired culture and the contribution that this role is expected to make so as to give the referee an accurate context in which to respond to your questions;
  • Pose a series of questions that are based on your needs asking the referee to provide you with evidence of the candidate’s fit with those qualities based on their experience but very much in the context of your business;
  • Express gratitude for the referee’s participation (that is just courteous but, if you want an extra reason, giving thanks builds goodwill and enhances your reputation and that might just pay off sometime).

Rule #3: Make it a conversation

People are often nervous about providing referee’s comments especially if there is anything that might not be complimentary.

It is important that you put the person at ease by making the process as informal as possible – make it a conversation rather than an interrogation. Start by thanking them for agreeing to act as a referee and confirm the process and time commitment for them. Give them a brief overview of your business and the role for which the candidate has applied.

Ask a few questions about the referee’s background eg “before we start talking about Mr XYZ, tell me a bit about yourself and your background.” This helps to give you context about the referee and helps the referee to relax into the conversation.

Then establish the connection and level of the referee’s experience with and knowledge of the candidate. Explore the nature of the role(s) that the candidate had, what their key responsibilities were and how effective they were in meeting those.

Also explore the culture of the organisation – ask what the core values were and how well the candidate fitted with those, asking for examples of situations and ways in which they practised the values in real terms.

Now it is time to drill down into the questions that you identified in the planning process as needing answers, making sure that you contextualise the questions to your needs. For example, “At ABC Inc, we have a wide range of customers and some can be very demanding and difficult to deal with. We want to ensure we look after our people’s wellbeing and this role is responsible for doing that with our customer service team. How do you think Mr XYZ would manage that for the team he would lead in this role and why, based on your experience with him, do you think that is the case?”

Don’t be afraid to dig a bit deeper or to adapt your questions based on the feedback that you are receiving in the conversation. You can be a bit flexible without compromising procedural fairness.

When you have finished your questions, ask the referee if there is anything that they would like to add. Finally, close off the conversation, thanking the referee for their time and information about the candidate.

Rule #4: Reflect and revise

Now revisit those questions that you came up with in the planning phase and the Position Description for the role. Adjust your ratings where appropriate based on the feedback that you received from referees.

Ready to make the call now?

Peter Maguire is the owner and practice leader of Ridgeline HR, an award winning HRM consulting practice which he founded in 2000. Peter is an acknowledged expert in workplace relations compliance and also a high-performance leadership coach with over 40 years’ experience in HRM. Ridgeline HR’s byline is Helping PEOPLE in BUSINESS and that is essentially what Peter does – help business people with their people business.