Work environments are constantly changing. Process’ and procedures are evolving, and so too is the way we hire. However reference checks will always be an employer’s go-to when hiring. While written references are great to have, telephone reference checks are that final verification before an offer of employment is extended.

Many hiring managers, recruiters and HR teams are very comfortable with conducting reference checks – they do them every day. For those employers doing them occasionally, reference checks can be a little bit intimidating. You may not know what to ask, or even how to phrase a question to get the answers you are looking for.

Why do reference checks

Even if someone has a shiny resume and aces their interview, it is incredibly important to follow through with reference checks. They provide verification of a resume’s accuracy, as well as supplying valuable insight into cultural fit, performance, attitude, work ethic, and how they handle both success and failure in a variety of situations. It is incredibly insightful information that can help you turn a good hire into a great hire.

On a side note, if someone has worked for over 5 years and cannot provide at least 3 professional references, mitigating circumstances aside, you have reasons to be suspicious. Even if someone has moved countries they should be able to provide work email addresses and telephone numbers for previous managers.

Why references by phone are better

Not all reference checks are created equal. While email may work if someone is in a different time zone or with a language barrier, you tend to lose the nuances that you pick up in a telephone conversation. Emails can be perfectly crafted, very polite, or allow the reference too long to think about their answers so you don’t get a straightforward reply.

Telephone conversations eliminate all of that. You get to hear the references tone of voice – excited and upbeat, or hesitant and guarded. The way they answer one question, can lead you to a new line of questions you would never have thought to ask. You develop a sense of rapport with the person. And surprisingly, people tend to be more honest and forthright over the phone, than via email.

Phone conversations also give you the opportunity to make sure a reference is aware of any privacy and compliance acts that are relevant in your country. Make sure to consult your HR team if you are unsure of the exact details around these.

How to conduct a reference check

  1. Always start the call by introducing who you are, the company you work for, and your title. Let the reference know the name of the candidate you are calling about, and that this is a reference call.
  2. Make sure that now is a good time to chat. If it isn’t, schedule a time to call back, and be on time when you reconnect with them. Remember that even through you are doing a reference check for a candidate, you are also representing your company. You never know who might be a potential client in the future.
  3. Ensure they understand that the candidate gave you permission to get in contact with them to complete a reference check.
  4. Confirm the candidate actually reported to the reference – especially if this is to be a supervisory reference. Co-worker and character references may be applicable to employers, but you want to make sure you are aware what kind of a reference you are conducting before you start asking questions.
  5. Double check employment dates, position held, duties performed. Candidates may occasionally embellish their resumes. You want to make sure actual experience matches their resume and is accurate.
  6. Give a brief description of the position the candidate has applied for so that all their answers can be given in context. Ask relevant questions. Give them time to answer your questions, making sure not to put words in their mouth or cut them off.
  7. Always thank them for their time and honesty at the end of the call.

What types of questions to ask

Not all questions are created equal – especially when you factor in industry standards and technical specificities that positions may entail. They should give you a clearer understanding of a candidate’s abilities and performance.

By asking the right questions you will get the answers you are looking for. By asking generic superficial questions, you will receive the same in reply. Make sure your questions are relevant and insightful. It is the difference between asking “Did you enjoy working with John?”, and “How did John perform in a tight deadline driven team environment?”

Avoid discriminatory questions

The rules for reference checks are the same as those for interview questions. You shouldn’t be asking anything that doesn’t relate to a candidates ability to perform in a job. This goes beyond race, religion, or sexual orientation questions. You need to be aware that even questions about adequate child care arrangement, or medical issues, are also not ok.

Saying that it is important to remember that employment standards differ from country to country. What may be ok to ask in Malaysia, may not be ok to ask in Brazil. By staying on top of your countries employment law you can avoid a lot of problems, or any accusations of discrimination..

Corporate policies against providing references

Occasionally you may encounter a reference whose company has a corporate policy against providing references – verbal or written. This is mostly related to legal liability. Legally a reference needs to be fair and accurate, so contrary to popular belief, an employer can still give a bad reference. If someone was fired or had poor performance, as long as there is evidence (warning letters or reviews) it is acceptable to give a bad reference. But policy is still policy.

In this situation it is best to ask if a reference will act as a personal reference, even though they supervised the candidate’s performance. That way it can be noted that they are providing their personal opinion rather than speaking on behalf of the company. This will work for some employers, and you are still getting a reference from a former/current manager.

Surprise revelations in reference checks

Just because a candidate has provided hand-picked references, it doesn’t always mean they will be good. You will be surprised how often you may hear “I can’t believe Mary put me down as a reference. We fired her for theft and fraud.”

You do not want to find yourself in a situation where these revelations come to light after a candidate has been hired. By doing your due diligence, and completing reference checks, you will be able to avoid these uncomfortable situations with legal ramifications.

Know that references may talk to your candidate

Assume that anything you reveal to a reference will most probably be passed on to your candidate. You may say “My colleague thought Luke was quite arrogant, and I am wondering if that was a problem when he worked with you”. Do not be surprised when Luke finds out exactly what was said. Now imagine the tension if he takes the role but is working with that colleague.  It is important to phrase your questions that will not make a candidate feel bad before they have even started with you.

If you can’t get a reference

Occasionally you will call a reference and find that they have moved on, and no one else in that division worked with your candidate. It is always worthwhile to offer your candidate a chance to provide more references, or to get alternative contact details. Just because they didn’t give you a list of 15 references, doesn’t mean they don’t have any more.

Always remember

No matter who you are talking with, reference checks should be conversational. Don’t have your reference questions set in stone. Be adaptable and listen carefully to every reply. Reference checks provide a wealth of knowledge about a new employee and will help set up your future working relationship for success.

The recruitment team at Energy Resourcing knows this which is why we take such care when doing reference checks. The information we gather during reference checks helps our clients make informed hiring decisions, so we make sure to get as many details as we possibly can.  We love what we do, and would love to help with your next hire.

Share this post ...