Reference Checks


One of the on-going concerns about reference checking is the belief by some employers that, since references are selected by the candidate, they’re only going to say good things about him or her.  There are two critical ways to avoid that problem altogether.

The first is for the prospective employers to define the type of references they want the candidate to provide, rather than merely to accept the candidate’s hand-picked references.  There is absolutely no reason why an employer can’t specify the type of references he/she wants from the candidate.  What the employer ought to do is decide if the most useful references are previous superiors, peers, or subordinates with whom the candidate has worked on a daily basis or a combination of all three types of previous coworkers.  Furthermore, the employers should decide if they want all the references to come from the candidate’s most recent employer or from multiple employers over the last five to seven years.  Put simply, the employer should define the type of references wanted and leave it up to the candidate to provide the names and contact information for references who fit the employer’s definition.

If a candidate cannot provide an appropriate list of references asked for by the employer, the best course of action is probably to continue searching for an attractive candidate who can!

The second key is for the employer to be able to ask not only insightful questions that relate to the skills essential to the position, but also more direct questions that focus on how well the candidate will fit into the employer’s corporate culture.  A simple background check, while essential, will not address either of the foregoing areas of concern.

Care also needs to be given to the selection and phrasing of job-related questions to ask a candidate’s references.  Open-ended questions are always best.  To provide the reference with possible responses like “good,” “fair,” or “poor” are too limiting and don’t require the references to give much thought to a response.  A much better way to phrase an interview question is to say something like, “How would you describe so-and-so’s management style?” as opposed to, “Would you say the candidate had a hands-on management style?”  The point is, with some careful composition, good questions can be developed that will elicit thoughtful responses from most references that can genuinely help the prospective employer make the best hiring decision possible.

In summary, is it necessary for employers to doubt the usefulness of reference checking as an essential pre-employment assessment tool?  Absolutely not!  All the employer has to remember is who is ultimately in charge of the selection process and not shy away from insisting that candidates provide references the employer wants, not references candidates want the employer to have.