How to Get More from a Reference Check

Reference checks are an essential step in your hiring process. As someone who has conducted a significant number of them in my career, I know they can be extremely time consuming and don’t always yield the most insightful information.

However, reference checks have the potential to provide you with some of the most critical, timely, and valuable information you could ask for:  actually knowing how a candidate has performed on the job. Certainly, past performance is a strong predictor of future performance. But simply verifying employment dates and asking superficial questions will typically leave you in the cold. You need to make sure that you ask the right questions.

What (and Whom) to Ask
To maximize the effectiveness of your reference checks, I recommend using a standardized process where you are asking the same set of job-related questions to as many references as possible. In addition, you will need to consider the source. Feedback from a direct supervisor is more valuable than feedback from a friend or relative and should be weighted accordingly.

Dig Into the Competencies
You should be using the references to gauge the potential employee’s abilities within a set of job-related core competencies.

A few competencies that are generally important include adaptability, job knowledge, interpersonal skills, and communication skills. Some questions you could ask include: Are they able to adapt when goals or priorities shift? How well do they get along with their co-workers or handle difficult customers? Do they use proper grammar when writing and speaking? Do they understand their responsibilities?

Regardless of what competencies you need to know about, the most important things to remember when assembling your questions are:

  • Make sure they are job-related
  • Make sure you consistently ask the same questions of everyone you talk to
  • Make sure you contact as many references as possible

Reference checks are part of your first prediction of performance, and can provide extremely valuable insight into actual performance and fit at your organization. Perhaps more importantly, they are imperative in any effective defense against lawsuits alleging negligent hiring. Don’t settle for bad, inconsistent, or simply not enough information. 

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