References available upon request

You are looking for the right person to fill a position, and you have received applications from some promising candidates. You hope to find the perfect match in an interview, and close the agreement. Worse comes to worse, you think, if the candidates you meet are not an obvious fit, you may have to speak with references to get more information.

I want to stop you right there.

References are not an optional stage for problematic applicants; they are a key element in your search process, and one that can make the difference between a great hire and a hire that you will regret.

You may be thinking, I’ve spoken to references in the past, and I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know from the CV and interview. Why waste my time again?

The problem here is not the references; it’s you. You, the employer, are responsible for making the reference check process a fruitful one. Of course, you may choose to place this element of the search process in the hands of an experienced recruiter, who will know how to get the most of out your candidates’ references. If, however, you will be conducting reference checks yourself, here are some guidelines to help ensure that you speak to the right people, at the right time, and in the right manner.

Who? 

Your candidate’s best friend, high school teacher, or even professional colleague, are not the references you are looking for. Make it clear to the candidates that you want to speak with former employers or direct managers, especially from their most recent positions.

Sometimes a candidate will shy away from giving a reference from his or her last position, either because they have not yet given notice or because the relationship ended badly. While this is certainly understandable, you can insist on receiving a reference from someone at the last workplace, either after your own process with the candidate has advanced, or from someone within the previous workplace whose confidentiality the candidate trusts.

When?

Generally speaking, you will get the most out of a reference after you have conducted an initial interview, since you will then have more focused questions and issues to discuss. Also, many job seekers will ask that you only contact their reference after the interview, so as to ensure that only serious potential employers will be “bothering” their references, who are (we hope) busy, serious professionals. This is a legitimate concern, and if possible, should be respected. However, if a candidate seems to be a great fit in some ways, yet her CV raises some concerns, it may be worthwhile to get the candidates’ permission to speak to references as a preliminary step.

How?

The references your candidate gives you will necessarily feel obligated to give a positive report. It will be your responsibility to get relevant details out of them, in a manner which will not compromise their sense of responsibility to the candidate. Here are some guidelines to make that happen.

Establish the groundwork: Set up a time to speak, specifying that you would like to speak for twenty minute to a half an hour. That in itself will make it clear to the reference that “I really like John, I think he would be great” is not going to cut it with you.

When you call, establish some ground rules for the conversation that will make the reference more comfortable. Tell them that you will not communicate anything that they have said to the candidate, nor will you in any way attribute your decisions about interviewing or hiring to this conversation.

Tell them also that you know that they would like to give a positive reference for the candidate, and that your goal is to hear all about him/ her, with the awareness that there will be areas that will be a perfect fit for this specific position and areas that will be less so, as is the case with everyone. Make it clear that you are depending on their honesty and professionalism.

Prepare your questions in advance, and frame them around actual events:  First you will need to formulate exactly what skills and personality you are seeking. For example, a research position requires self discipline, organization, creativity, and the ability to work long hours independently; A management position requires excellent interpersonal skills, long term planning abilities and execution skills; a social work position requires empathy, practicality, and the ability to inspire trust.

Once you are clear about exactly what you are looking for, formulate those requirements into questions that will give you factual, detailed answers. At the end of the conversation, you want to have concrete information about the candidates’ skills and qualities in the areas that are important for the role.

Say you need to find someone who works really well on a team, and can be depended upon to complete projects on schedule. Instead of asking: What is John like to work with? (Predictable answer: Great); ask: Tell me about a time when there was conflict in the office and tell me about John’s involvement. Instead of asking: How is John at getting projects completed on schedule? Ask: Tell me about a big project John was involved in. What was his role? What challenges came up? How did he respond?  You get the idea.

Tempting as it may be, it is not worth your while to skip the reference checking stage in a hiring process. Reference checks can save you from poor hiring decisions and grant you new insights into your candidates’ skills.

Don’t skip it; just do it right.

About the Author
Gila Weinberg, CEO of Mikum Consulting, is a recruiter and a career coach. She helps organizations and companies find great employees, and helps great people figure out their next career move. Gila is also the author of Not So Grimm: Jewish Fairy Tales, a comparison between tales from the Talmud and classic fairy tales.
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