Running a Reference Check: A Guide for Hiring Managers

Updated August 16, 2023

Have you ever made a bad hire?

If you have, don’t worry. It’s actually pretty common for hiring managers to miss out on a candidate every once in a while. But the regret of hiring the wrong person can sting because you know it’s the quality of employees that can often determine the success of your business.
And in today’s environment, where more and more companies are shifting to a remote workspace, hiring the right person has become as important as ever.

Running an in-depth reference check can help expedite this process.

A reference check is the process of reaching out to a candidate’s former colleagues, managers, or other professional connections to learn more about them as an applicant. A standard step in the hiring process is to run a reference check that allows you to gain valuable insight into a candidate’s skills, personality, and overall qualifications.

The way you execute your reference check can directly impact the quality of the information you receive. Implementing certain best practices can help you get the most out of your reference checks.

But how can you make sure it’s being done thoroughly and accurately without becoming too time-consuming? In this article, we’re going to explain exactly how you can perfect and accelerate your reference checking system and hire the best people for your team.

Why Is a Reference Check Important?

Reference checks provide you with a first-hand account of how a candidate functions in the workplace.

They are beneficial because they make your hiring process:

  • Rigorous
  • Reliable
  • Effective
  • Customizable

While their resume and interview can provide you with helpful information about their qualifications, these application materials may not be able to reflect their real workplace performance. Gathering the perspectives of their employers, team members, or supervisors can provide you with a holistic understanding of their skill level and how they communicate. This can help you envision how they’d perform in their role and fit in with your current team.

The Key Benefits of Reference Checks

Implementing reference checks in your hiring process can have a direct impact on the quality of the candidates you hire. Some of the benefits include:

  • Verifying qualifications: Checking in with a candidate’s references can help you verify the accuracy of any information they shared in the interview.
  • Assessing culture fit: Getting a personal account of how a candidate behaves in the workplace can help you determine if they’re a good match for your company culture.
  • Protecting your company and customers: Conducting a reference check allows you to fully vet your candidates. This ensures that you’re hiring trustworthy, honest candidates who will treat their colleagues and clients with respect.

While you may primarily base your hiring decisions on interviews, resumes, and cover letters, a reference check can help provide more context for each candidate. Depending on the reference’s feedback, this can validate your decisions or encourage you to consider other options.

Best Practices for Reference Checking

It’s important to have a standardized process for checking references. This ensures that you’re providing a consistent hiring process for your candidates across the organization. It also streamlines the process and enables you to have productive conversations with each reference.

Here are some of the main best practices you can use to guide the reference check process.

State That You Check References

Set clear expectations with your candidates by informing them that reference checks are a core part of your hiring process. Some employers don’t check references, so candidates may not expect you to reach out. Letting each candidate know that you check references encourages them to be forthright about their employment history and qualifications.

It also allows candidates to choose appropriate references for the job. For example, a candidate may not want their current employer to know that they’re looking for another job. By informing the candidate about the importance of references in the hiring process, you give them the opportunity to provide a reference that you can speak to freely, such as a team member or a supervisor from a previous position.

Build on Interview Responses

To guide your conversations, use the information you gathered during your interview. For example, if a candidate mentioned working on a specific project, you could ask about the outcome or process!

It’s also helpful to ask open-ended questions, as this encourages the reference to speak freely and share the most relevant information about the candidate. If the candidate mentioned their leadership skills, you could ask the manager to share an example of the time they displayed leadership. This is all with the goal of trying to get great qualitative information about the candidate!

Design a Reference Check Form

Creating a form that you use for every candidate makes it easier for you to standardize the reference check process. It also gives you a consistent way to document the responses of each reference, helping you stay organized.

A reference check form should include basic information about the candidate and any core questions you ask to ever reference. You can also add a custom section to document the unique questions you create based on each candidate’s application details.

Do the Check Yourself

Instead of outsourcing reference checks to other team members, schedule time to complete them yourself. As a manager, it’s critical to have an inside perspective on each of your potential new hires. This ensures that you interpret the reference check conversations correctly.

RELATED: How to Make a Job Offer Candidates Will Accept

Important Reference Check Questions

While each role’s requirements and the candidate’s application materials will warrant different questions, here are a few inspiration questions to help you get started:

  • How do you know the candidate?
  • Describe your relationship with the candidate.
  • Describe the candidate’s primary duties
  • Tell me about the candidate’s strengths.
  • Give me an example of a time the candidate overcame a challenge.
  • Where might the candidate need support when transitioning to this role?

During your conversation, give the reference an opportunity to discuss both the candidate’s strengths and potential weaknesses. If the role targets specific skills, be sure to include questions addressing how they used those skills in past roles.

3 Red Flags to Watch Out For

Typically, candidates provide references who they’ve had a good experience with and can honestly support their applications. However, there are a few warning signs that you may come across during the reference check process:

  • Bad references: If a candidate’s reference doesn’t have positive feedback, you may want to reconsider their application.
  • References that are too good to be true: A good reference provides a holistic, balanced view of a candidate. If the reference shares unrealistically positive information, they may not be providing the full story.
  • Lies in an application: Getting contradictory information from a candidate and their reference can indicate that they aren’t being honest about their application.

If any of these situations occur, consider the information in the full context of the application. You may decide to proceed with other candidates or schedule a follow-up conversation to learn more.

Reference Checks Get You Great Staff

By planning thoughtful reference checks, you can discover more about how your top candidates perform in real workplace situations. This can help you envision them in the role and give you all the details you need to make informed hiring decisions. Understanding the importance of reference checks and implementing these best practices can help you hire better candidates who make a positive impact on your team.

If you’d like to discuss ways to streamline your hiring process with experts in staffing and recruiting, just get in touch with our Insight Global team today.

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