There are several ways to contact a candidate’s references, but there’s only one best way to do it.  As a prospective employer, you could send references an email, a text message, or an on-line list of questions or even mail them a questionnaire to fill out and return.  All of those are easy to do, but the responses the prospective employer receives back, if a response comes back at all, are rarely adequate for helping the employer make the best hiring decision.

The best way to reach references is by telephone or iPhone.  Why?  Because actually talking to a candidate’s references facilitates far more interaction and, thus, one is able to obtain far more useful information about the candidate.  For example, any non-verbal communication, by definition, doesn’t allow asking important follow-up questions if a response isn’t clear or isn’t complete.  In addition, non-verbal communication doesn’t provide the opportunity to listen for pauses, hesitations, or inflection or tone of voice.

In order for a reference to provide really useful information about a candidate, there needs to be a real two-way communication.  Furthermore, the reference can, in turn, hear your voice.  Does it have a friendly and sincere tone?  Does it sound truly engaged in the conversation or does it sound sing-songy, like somebody reading from a prepared script or just checking off boxes on a form?  (There really is an art to asking questions and also sounding genuinely interested in what the reference has to say.)

None of the foregoing interactions can take place if some non-verbal form of communication takes place or if the person making the calls isn’t highly trained in the art of communication.  Without intending to sound, well, silly, if you’ve agreed to serve as a reference and you receive a form in the mail or an online questionnaire, it’s next to impossible to ask that piece of paper or that computer screen a question about what a particular question means!

While it may be difficult to believe, you would be surprised how many major employers still send out reference questionnaires of the “good, fair, poor, check just one box please” type!  There is no substitute for actually talking with a reference in real time.  In my 35+ years in the pre-employment screening business, I believe I can say, with confidence, that the best way to obtain useful information about a candidate for employment is to actually have a structured conversation with his references.  There is no comparable substitute for actually talking to references.