Reference checking best practices [Interview]

Reference checking best practices [Interview]

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    Making a hasty, ill-informed decision is never a good idea – especially when recruiting. Companies that fail to conduct the necessary pre-employment checks can find themselves in danger of negligent hiring. 

    Reference checks are an important pre-employment check that recruiters should conduct on candidates before offering them a position. Why? Well, because they are an informed review of your candidate. Just as you would consult a review of a product before purchase, you should be consulting reviews of your candidates before hiring. It is just common sense.

    So, how can you conduct adequate reference checks on your candidates? By following best practice advice from experienced HR professionals.

    I have spoken with Laura Koefoed, who has over five years experience as a recruiter, about her best practice advice for reference checking, and these were the results.

    Inform your candidates before checking references

    It may sound obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway, you should inform your candidates that you will be contacting their referees. Reference checks are usually conducted late in the recruitment process, and by that point, recruiters should have built up enough of a relationship to have that conversation. Failing to respect that relationship could break the trust with the candidate and leave them less inclined to accept your future offer. 

    “I would never not call before conducting a reference check on a candidate as a recruiter. It just saves you so much time in the long run if your candidates are informed of what is happening.” – Laura Koefoed

    Generally, this will result in a fast response from your candidates, but it will also allow candidates to inform their referees to be on the lookout for your correspondence. There is nothing worse than contacting a referee who doesn’t know or has forgotten they are a referee for a candidate. So, it is always a good idea to extend the kindness of a message or a phone call to your candidates to allow them to prepare their referees. Laura believes this can go a long way to make candidates feel supported and informed, with minimal effort from recruiters. 

    Ask the right questions 

    How can you expect to get insightful answers if you are not asking insightful questions? Reference checks are about more than just confirming information – they are a chance to better get to know your candidate

    As well as using questions about compliance and information confirmation, Laura recommends using questions that promote constructive responses and give you a deeper insight.

    “If you’re a company with a strong focus on team values, I would ask the referee if they thought their candidate met these values and why. Though it really depends on what is important to your company.” – Laura Koefoed

    Not every company is looking for the same values, skills or qualifications, hence why there is no one-size-fits-all reference check questionnaire. So, you must be asking questions relevant to your company. 

    “References should also be seen as a way recruiters can feed information back to managers so that they know what areas the candidate may need support with if they are successful. Then you’re not doing references as an exclusionary process – you’re doing them to give pointers to leaders because leaders should be developing their team.” – Laura Koefoed

    Asking about areas a candidate can improve forces referees to think and give critical feedback. It also lets you know what areas you might need to support them in once they have started. 

    Something Laura doesn’t recommend is using rating systems. While yes, they are a clear system, they are also, unfortunately, a skewed one. The problem with rating systems is that everyone perceives the ratings differently. A rating system is useful when all candidates are being rated by the same person, but when each candidate is being rated by different people, there is no precedent set for the scale. One referee may be overly generous, the other overly critical, and there is no way of knowing which is which. 

    Look out for answers that are…

    There are lots of different things to look out for when you’re reference checking, and obviously, some will be dependent on the questions you ask. However, one thing you should always be looking out for is discrepancies. Check things such as the position title, leadership experience and years working in that role, match the information the candidate has given you. While this may sound obvious, it is important, so I couldn’t write this piece without mentioning it. 

    Another thing to look out for is any mention of the candidate having been given an official warning or caution at a previous place of employment. This is best asked directly as a question, as opposed to, hoping that a referee will mention it elsewhere in less direct questions. Many referees are cautious of what they say in a reference, and so if you want an answer you are best off asking directly. 

    Use an automated reference checking software

    “I think consistency is really important to remain fair and in line with equitable hiring practices.” – Laura Koefoed

    Automated reference checking allows you to remain consistent, fair and compliant. As Laura has mentioned, consistency is key to having fair equitable hiring in the workplace, and so you need to ensure your reference checks are consistent. Asking different referees different questions when they are in relation to the same position, is not fair and could be considered misleading or biased. Using automated reference checking software, you can ensure your questions remain consistent for each job type. 

    Additionally, automated reference checking is more cost and time-efficient as you do not have to spend hours chasing down referees. Instead, you can move your candidate to the reference checking stage and wait for references to get back to you. 

    Though automated reference checking is not just about efficiency, it’s also about compliance. Conducting thorough pre-employment checks is part of the compliance standards for many industries and organisations. It has gotten to the point that manually doing these checks is far too time-consuming, and rushing them could provide you with inaccurate information. Automated reference checks are the best way to avoid this and remain compliant with these standards. 


    Reference checking is about far more than just ruling out candidates. If you ask the right questions, they can be used constructively by managers going forward with the successful candidate. The key to successfully conducting reference checks is remaining consistent and ensuring that you are compiling with fair hiring practices. 

    Automated reference checks have completely streamlined reference checking to help accommodate the growing necessity for pre-employment checks. Employers should consider using these systems to avoid negligence and remain in line with compliance standards. 

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