Reference Checking 101


We talk about due diligence all the time in today’s business world. In order to make a good decision, information and data are required to verify that your organization is moving in the right direction. Hiring decisions are no different and back checking is a very important step in the recruitment process. But how come this step is very often skipped? It is very easy to become excited about a particular candidate after completing the interview process and wish to make an offer to get the candidate in the door as soon as possible. However, forgoing reference checks is detrimental to your organization. The back checking process is a hiring manager’s due diligence to ensure that a candidate is everything that they said they were. Not only can you verify previous employers and experience, but also repeated behaviours and performance that may be an indication of future behaviours. If fooled by a candidate, organizations open themselves up to huge risk, which can be costly, negatively impact culture and even open the door to such behaviours as violence or theft.

I often hear from hiring managers that they are concerned of legalities surrounding reference checks and what kind of questions they can ask. They are also very skeptical of what kind of information they will actually get from potential references and how credible it will be. Below are 5 tips to keep in mind when conducting reference checks:

  1. Don’t ask leading questions – Give the reference time to answer the question. Just like in an interview, a few moments of silence while they gather their thoughts to answer a question is completely ok. You are looking for organic and authentic feedback that truly indicates who the candidate is.
  2. Keep it legal – in an interview you are restricted from asking questions that are discriminatory in nature and the same goes for reference checks. Keep questions relevant to the job and the character required to be a fit within the team and your organization.
  3. Be thorough – Not only should you be contacting the references provided by your candidates, but you should go one step further and contact employers and post-secondary institutions listed on the candidate’s resume. Human Resources departments should be able to verify the dates of employment at a minimum. It gets a little trickier with educational institutions due to FOIP (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act), but depending on provincial legislation they may be able to verify your candidates’ education. If you cannot obtain that verification from the educational institution directly, you can always ask the candidate to provide their transcripts to validate their education.
  4. Credibility is key – Contact at least two previous supervisors for a complete picture of past performance. Supervisors are able to give you an unbiased, clear and detailed picture of how the candidate performed and what their responsibilities were. For a third reference, professional peers or character references are fine, but they tend to be personal friends of the candidate who have not directly overseen their work and cannot critically provide an opinion on their work and past performance.
  5. Trust your gut – If you have completed the interview process and selected your top candidate but continue to have one or two hesitations about them, the reference check is the perfect time to verify your suspicions. If you don’t think a candidate is particularly strong in one particular realm or are unsure of their capacity, ask their former manager for direct feedback. If your concerns remain after the completion of a reference check, you may decide that particular candidate is not a fit for the role or organization and begin to pursue your number two candidate, or restart the search again.

Although it is additional time and effort on top of what can already be a long and sometimes dragged out recruitment process, reference checking is a vital part of due diligence. Bringing someone into your organization is always a big risk. Making the wrong hiring decision can be costly in many ways including wasted time, retraining new employees, negative effects on culture and most concerning, potential for behaviours like violence or theft. Completing reference checks helps to mitigate your risk and ensure that hiring mistakes within your organization are minimized.

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