The Secret to Masterful Reference Checks Every Time

No need to pinch yourself, it's happening — you found an excellent candidate for your open role. 

Before you start balancing a stack of branded sticky note pads all over their new desk space there is one more crucial step in the hiring process: the reference check. 

A reference check is when hiring managers contact the potential hire's previous employers to confirm dates of employment, work history, and qualifications by asking specific questions.

Phone tag and forced intimacy with a total stranger has most hiring managers rightfully reconsidering the outdated approach to reference check calls. Yet, the results of this key activity are the most effective and objective way to confirm that you are making the best hiring decision for your team. 

I believe that with professional references you gather important (and sometimes new) information about your prospective hire's communication skills, strengths, and work style.

CareerBuilder found that 62% of candidates embellish their soft skills. It's better to uncover deeply disguised red flags before these kinds of candidates creep onto your payroll. 

It’s also an amazing opportunity to get to know your candidates on a deeper level. One of the favorite things I hear from my customers is how better referencing helped them make a great hire who they normally would have overlooked. 

Trust me, leveraging referencing as a strategic technique to understand your candidates will save you a lot of time, energy, and money down the line. I'm going to take you through a few guidelines to help you complete the best reference checks and share a couple of tools that can help you get them done painlessly.

Remember These 4 C’s for All Reference Checks

Reference check: red string tied around pointer finger

To help ease professional references into the conversation and avoid any stress,

start the conversation by emphasizing that you think this candidate is a solid fit for the position. Your intention for the conversation is to support their former employee with essential tools for success in their onboarding if hired. By using high levels of positivity, it helps emphasize the productive nature of the reference call and takes the edge off.

With the tone set, there are a few other keys to keep in mind to help you get the most out of each reference check. I've named them the 4 C’s for memory:

  • Collective Preparation 
  • Constructive Questioning
  • Consistency Across All Candidates 

Collective Preparation

To get the most value out of references, I perform them with a skills profile clearly identified and prepared. This profile contains both technical and soft skills required for success in the role. This better equips me to ask the right questions to measure a candidate’s proficiency in those particular skills.

To get a tailored, well-prepared success profile for the new hire, it can help to collaborate with those who have firsthand experience with the role. Often your team will be the best sources of research for this.

Constructive Questioning

After performing many reference checks there’s a chance you can slip into autopilot mode and gloss over key pieces of information being relayed to you by the candidate's professional reference.

Use constructive language to ask specific questions. This ensures engagement on both ends. Insight that you have collected throughout the interview process with the potential hire is a great point of reference. Some sample reference questions include:

  • "I understand that Tim managed the Customer Success team. What can you tell me about his leadership style that he wouldn't have told us himself?
  • "Can you give me an example of a time that Tim improved a process?"
  • "What are a few words to describe Tim's work ethic?"

If you have reservations about the candidate you are reviewing, it's best to follow up with those after you have built some rapport with reference:

  • "Tim shared with me that time management is an area he hopes to improve. Here's why it's important to the role, how should I manage for this?"

In this way, the reference feels that you are rooting for the candidate and yet, sharing concerns objectively. Any signs of cynicism or negativity can often lead to the reference jumping in to defend the candidate or shutting down altogether. Neither of these is favorable when trying to learn more about a potential new hire. 

Consistency Across All Candidates

Stick to a guideline or framework that will help you to keep questions and discussions factual and comparisons between candidates consistent. Even if you think that you have understood a candidate's ability already, it's best to repeat the same questions to each of the candidates' professional references. If you veer too far off-script you allow personal bias to overtake facts.

Any questions asked should remain relevant to the open position and get a stamp of approval by your human resources department.

References are high stakes — not just for your candidate but also for your professional reputation as you discuss confidential details with other members of your industry. No one expects absolute perfection, but if you have to make mistakes, be sure that it's none of these:

  • Don't use sarcastic humor or cynicism as a form of bonding: Sarcasm is not like other forms of humor in that it isolates you from the person you are looking to build rapport with. It’s best to avoid it.
  • Don't solely rely on LinkedIn for references: However, feel free to cross-check for common connections and clues to confirm what you've uncovered in your reference checks.
  • Don't lead references into giving you the answer you want: Leading questions are time-wasters. For example, “Tell me why Tim would make a great candidate for a managerial role” implies Tim is a good manager. That may not always be the case, even if it’s what you hope for.
  • Don't tweak the questions mid-process: Consistency is key. To get a true reading of your candidates (and reduce any bias) you will want to use the same questions in every reference call.
  • Don't ask references any questions that are not aligned with their role: If George didn't report to Tim, it would be difficult for him to comment on his leadership style.
  • Don't rely on your memory or paraphrase: Fill the template word for word as the reference says it.
  • Don't confuse being attuned with reading into tone: You do not know this reference personally, what their day has been like, or how they typically handle these types of conversations. It would be a mistake to correlate tone with any subtle implication about the candidate in question.

Tech to Support Reference Checking

Reference check form

Since conducting references is common practice, there are amazing tools out there that can support you in your mission to do it well. Here are just two of them:

Lost for Words?

Templates can help streamline what you need to get from each reference and allow you to focus on recording their responses. This great copy/paste template from Sling gives you a place to record as you go. 

Be sure to personalize templates to correspond appropriately with the role you are hiring for. Ask yourself what characteristics you hope to uncover and work backwards to determine which questions to include on the form.

Out of Time?

Platforms like Searchlight streamline your connection to references and avoid that phone-tag lag. A solid 85% of Searchlight references are completed within three days, which means you can send that job offer out even sooner. 

Searchlight is different than what 99% of people consider a reference check. For companies, a reference check is a risk mitigation exercise, while Searchlight is a strategic evaluation technique. For candidates, a reference check is the final hurdle to cross, while Searchlight is an opportunity for them to show who they are.

Since Searchlight has done the heavy lifting by uncovering psychologically backed, GDPR-compliant reference questions, it's just a matter of waiting for responses to roll into your dashboard. HR Drive confirms automated reference checks are 82% more likely to be completed compared to just 30% of phone reference checks. Having access to reference-confirmed coachable areas at a glance makes it easier to predict your investment with each candidate up front. Minimizing guesswork means you can get back to work. 

Reference Checks Don't Have to Suck

When you find that candidate who you're excited to hire, it's a magical feeling — but it doesn’t have to feel so rare.

Reference checks help keep us to task with finding the best-suited candidates by inviting the outside perspective of third parties who've had practical experience working with them. It gives hiring managers an opportunity to listen for any red flags that may have flown by undetected previously and helps prevent that costly, bad hire. It is also simply a much better way of understanding what a candidate is like to work with than a 30- to 45-minute interview.

Using templates to keep references cohesive means you can focus on what's being said. Using automation platforms means efficient turnaround with reference-generated reports for an unobstructed bird's eye view of your candidates. You might even come to realize that reference checks can be kind of fun. Almost as fun as showing that new hire to their swag-covered desk.

Want to hire more high performers and increase retention?

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