Checking References: Back to the Basics

Checking References: Back to the Basics

by James Long, Client Services Director, Acclivity Healthcare

Reference checks used to be done frequently and thoroughly, but now a lot of hiring managers are skipping them completely. The managers who complete the reference checks are often doing only part of them, and not digging into the background of the applicant to ensure that the references are legitimate and the correct information is really being provided. Unfortunately, skipping the reference check means that a hiring manager can miss a lot of potential insight into a potential employee. If you know how to ask the right questions, you can get a great deal of information from checking reference. Here are some strategies to maximize your reference checks.

First, be sure you’re asking open-ended questions. Anyone can answer “yes or no” questions, and it can be difficult to say whether they’re answering those questions truthfully or not. You also really don’t learn much when asking these types of questions, because the answers provided don’t give you any detail, or any depth of knowledge on the employee you’re considering hiring. By asking open-ended or leading questions, you have a much better chance of drawing a reference into a conversation about the applicant. You can ask how they think an applicant would respond to a particular challenge, or how they believe that person would do in a particular industry, along with related types of questions.


Second, target the individual applicant’s weaknesses and strengths by finding out what makes them stand out among others in their peer group. If they’ve done something significant with their education or they’ve greatly helped a particular company with its revenue or other important areas, you should know about those things. If there are areas where they have failed significantly at something, that’s also important to know. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t a good candidate for your job opening, but only that they have weaknesses like everyone else. If you allow them space to play to their strengths, they could be a great choice for an employee.

The big question that many people avoid asking is whether you would hire that person back if the need or opportunity arose. That’s a very important question, and one that shouldn’t be avoided. If the last company the person worked for, and the individual who they supplied to you as a reference for their skills and abilities, wouldn’t rehire them, that’s something to think about. Of course, it also pays to know why they wouldn’t rehire them. It could be a reason that wouldn’t matter to your company. By asking the right kinds of questions, you can get to the bottom of your hiring decision more easily and use your applicant’s references to their full potential.

Don’t forget that not all references will want to speak with you or give you a lot of information. They aren’t legally obligated to provide you with a huge narrative about someone you’re considering hiring. A neutral reference or one without much to say isn’t generally a problem, or an indicator of an issue necessarily. Just keep in mind that several references without much to say could indicate that your applicant was not the best employee at their last job. You may want to take a step back from that particular candidate and choose someone else, so you have the highest chance of getting the best employees for your company’s needs.