The Importance of Reference Checking

By Paul Slezak - Nov. 16, 2015
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Editor’s Note: This post is by Paul Slezak, Cofounder and CEO of RecruitLoop – the World’s largest marketplace of expert Recruiters and Sourcers available on-demand.

In recent years, the concept of reference checking hasn’t only been thrown around HR departments and recruitment agencies. It’s even hit the mainstream media. Last year in Australia we learned about the scandal involving one of its largest retailers and a bogus reference check. And of course there was the Yahoo! scandal that hit the press a few years ago.

Conducting reference checks is an absolutely vital part of any recruitment process. And no matter how amazing a candidate may be on paper, and regardless of how impressive they may have been when you interviewed them, no recruiter should ever let the reference checking process slip through the cracks.

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Why do we reference check?

It’s pretty obvious that reference checking allows us to obtain independent information about our candidates’ previous on the job performance.

The information we gather during a reference check is directly related to the key selection criteria of the role they have applied for and allows us to validate the information provided by the candidate at the interview.

Referencing also allows us to identify ‘grey areas’ from the candidate’s CV or from their interview such as the reasons they may have left a past position.

It’s frightening to think of the number of recruiters who will actually rely on the feedback gained from a 2-minute phone conversation; or who might make a placement without even carrying out any reference checks at all.

They’re usually pretty badly burnt within the guarantee period since it doesn’t take long for the client to realise the candidate isn’t quite as experienced as they had first assumed.

When do we reference check?

There are candidates out there who look great on paper but who perform poorly during interview. But there are also candidates who perform very well during interview but once they are on the job it’s a different story altogether. CVs can be embellished, and it’s even possible to become a ‘master interviewee’ with a bit of coaching or plenty of practice.

The good news is that there is a way for you to ensure that the person you initially discovered on paper and the candidate you then thought performed strongly at interview is actually who they say they are.

Before you make an offer to a candidate, you should really carry out two verbal reference checks. It’s the perfect way for you to understand how your candidate really performs on the job (the good and maybe even the not so good) before your client finds out … perhaps the hard way. But don’t conduct the references too early in the recruitment process.

As a recruiter if I’d met a rockstar candidate, I used to conduct the 1st reference asap so I could include the feedback from the referee when I was selling the candidate to my client.

I’d then conduct the 2nd reference when I knew my client was serious about making an offer. It’s always a relief when you hear positive feedback about the candidate you are so desperate to place. But it’s still important to take notes during your calls with past employers and provide a detailed summary to your client. If one of the two reference checks is glowing and the other is mediocre or even negative, you should try to conduct a third check just to ensure you iron out any disparity.

Plan your questions carefully

When you are speaking to your candidate’s former supervisor, please don’t just ask them questions like “was she a good staff member?”, “how many sick days did she have?” or “on a scale of 1-5 how would you describe his integrity?”.

You’re really not going to learn that much. If during your interview you asked the candidate questions around communication, decision-making and time management, you should then ask the referee (ideally the candidate’s former boss) exactly the same questions. “When did Nicole ever have to “sell” an idea to a co-worker? How did she do it?” “Can you give me an example of a time when Alex had to be quick in coming to a decision. What obstacles did he face? What did he do?”  The questions you ask should prompt the candidate’s former supervisor to talk about the candidate’s actual past experiences and behaviour – ideally in more than just a 2-minute quick call.

The responses to these questions will certainly tell you more than whether your candidate was nice to work with, was usually punctual, had minimal sick days or whether she was proficient in Excel. But don’t put words in their mouth.

Once again while you might be keen to make an offer to an A-grade candidate, try to avoid manipulating the conversation to go in your favour. So steer clear of comments like: “What you’re saying is that Bill interacts well within a team, right?” “We’re looking for someone with outstanding customer service skills. Chloe was part of your customer support team, wasn’t she?” Oh … and if a referee is gushing with praise and can’t fault your candidate in any way at all, that should ring alarm bells too. Even the greatest employees can improve in one or two areas. How does that saying go? “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is”.

The one hypothetical question you’re allowed to ask

The one question you might also want to consider asking at the very end of every conversation with a referee is something along the lines of “So would you ever re-employ [insert name here]?

This should be the only hypothetical question in the entire discussion. But the answer to this question can speak volumes. After all, there is a huge difference between “Um … I guess so”, “Yes … yes I would”, and “Hell yeah! I’d have her back in a heart beat”.

Beware of fake referees

You wouldn’t believe how many ‘professional’ candidates out there will provide fake referees. When a candidate is desperate to get a new job, they’ll resort to anything.

Over the years I have personally caught many candidates out who gave me the names of so-called previous ‘managers’ who in fact turned out to no more than colleagues or even just friends!

Make sure you’re really talking to a previous employer. Do your due diligence. If a candidate gives you the details of a past boss, check them out on LinkedIn, and ideally call them on a land line at the organisation. Better still, after you’ve spoken to them, connect with them on LinkedIn and thank them for taking the time to speak to you. You’ll quickly find out if you actually spoke with an ‘imposter’.

Hi Paul. Thanks for connecting with me on LinkedIn. I think you might have the wrong Henry Wynstop. We’ve never spoken.

The name has been changed here. But I remember exactly how I felt when I received this message … when I’d already made the offer to the candidate on behalf of my client the day before.

New business opportunities

Of course any reference check is also one of the easiest new business development strategies for recruitment consultants out there.

Think about it. You’ve just spent 15 – 20 minutes talking to a line manager. So you should never hang up from a reference check call without asking whether they need help with any recruitment!

Trust me … it sure beats having to cold call!

Reference Checking Template : This guide will help you obtain independent information about your candidates’ previous on the job performance. Get it Now!
Cofounder and CEO at RecruitLoop. I've been a hands on recruiter, manager, trainer, coach, mentor, and regular speaker for the recruitment industry for nearly 25 years.


Paul Slezak

Cofounder and CEO at RecruitLoop. I've been a hands on recruiter, manager, trainer, coach, mentor, and regular speaker for the recruitment industry for nearly 25 years.

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