Tips for Performing Reference Checks

All too often, companies and hiring managers are enamored with a candidate based on a resume and an interview but breeze through reference checks as a formality.  Checking references is a critical part of the hiring process that shouldn’t be glossed over and it’s more than just checking boxes.

Years have taught me some fundamental guidelines that can help you get the most out of your reference checks.  Here are some tips for checking references that may help you avoid making the wrong hire.

Explain that you will check references

Disclose to the candidate, early in the interview process, that you will eventually conduct reference checks.  When candidates know this in advance, they will be less likely to exaggerate or be untruthful about their accomplishments or responsibilities.  They are also more likely to be transparent when explaining why they left a previous employer.

Evaluate the references they provide

Candidates usually have a list of references they have prepared.  Determine if you can learn anything about the candidate based on the types of people they provided as a reference.  Are they all colleagues?  Are the references still employed with the company?  I feel really good when a candidate provides immediate supervisors from their recent employers as potential references.

Recruiter Interviewing Executive Job Seeker Candidate

Request the references you want to check

During the interview, let the candidate know which employers and supervisors you’d like to speak with as a reference.  Select people that will help you determine if the candidate is a good match for your open position.  I generally ask if I can speak with the person to whom they directly reported in these three companies:

  • Their most recent employer
  • The employer with whom they’ve held the most relevant responsibilities
  • The employer at which they had the longest tenure

Many interviewers are uncomfortable asking for references beyond the ones initially provided, but it can be invaluable in getting a more accurate picture of how the candidate will fit within your company.  If the candidate declines, hesitates, or makes you uncomfortable because of the request, there’s a strong possibility they are not being completely candid about their previous responsibilities or why they departed.

Prep for conducting the reference check

Solicit concerns from everyone in your company who interviewed the candidate.  Make a list and be prepared to figure out if the concerns are legitimate when speaking with references.  Then seek expert advice about what questions you can and can’t ask the reference.  Regulations vary by state, so while we encourage hiring managers to conduct supervisory references, your HR or legal team should provide guidance before contacting the reference.  You can read additional information on the legality of reference checks.

 Ask open ended questions

When calling the reference, it’s important to get an accurate picture of the candidate’s responsibilities, performance, work ethic, strengths, opportunities for improvement, etc.  You will need to ask open-ended questions that are detailed and allow you to glean the information needed to make a good hire. Instead of asking if the candidate met deadlines (a “yes” or “no” question), ask them to recount a time the candidate had a difficult deadline to meet.  Were they successful?  Why or why not?

Don’t ask questions geared to elicit responses we’d like to hear.  What I mean is don’t “lead the witness”.  Don’t say, “The candidate told me they generated $2M of new business last year… does that seem accurate?”  Instead ask, “How much new business was the candidate able to generate last year?”  A reference may be uncomfortable openly refuting a candidate’s claims but leaving out what the candidate reported can provide a more comfortable forum for the reference to share more freely.

Making a Reference Call

Be detailed and ask for examples

You should always ask for examples on reference checks.  Just to get through a phone call, many references will give a glowing recommendation but don’t offer any real substance.  To cut through lip service, request examples to support what you’re being told.  For example, if you’re told the candidate goes above and beyond to ensure the team’s success, ask for an example of such a time.  Conversely, some references share negative comments but are ambiguous.  To get an accurate picture of the candidates past performance and cultural fit, you should get detailed examples that support what the reference says.

Look for hidden meaning and seek clarification

Whenever you receive vague feedback from a reference, seek clarification.  Look for hidden meaning in the way they phrase their answers.  If you ask about a candidate’s track record for hitting business goals and the reference says they were “mostly” on target, don’t ignore the “mostly”.  Where there is smoke, there is often fire.  Assume the candidate didn’t always hit goals and seek clarification by asking the reference how often they fell short.  What were the circumstances?  How many of the candidate’s peers hit or fell short of goals?

Learn the circumstances surrounding the candidate’s departure

If state regulations allow, you should try and learn from the reference why the candidate left their previous employer.  You can learn a lot about a person from why they left.  It can help you determine if they might leave your company for the same reasons.  Is your work culture different or the same as their previous employer?  Again don’t “lead the witness”, but if a reference corroborates what a candidate said, there is a good chance you have an accurate account of why the candidate left.  If you receive different perspectives from the reference and the candidate, you will need to dig further to get to the truth, which is often somewhere in between both stories.


Things to avoid when checking references

  • Avoid only speaking with their colleagues – speak with supervisors
  • Don’t have expectations before receiving feedback from references – be neutral and unbiased
  • Avoid phrasing questions that lead to answers you hope to hear – don’t “lead the witness”
  • Never put too much stock in references that praise excessively – nobody is perfect
  • Don’t let one negative reference cloud the entire picture – people don’t always see eye to eye
  • Don’t ask questions that are not related to job performance or responsibilities
  • Never call a current employer without the candidate’s express permission


Piecing it all together

Checking references is both an art and a science.  You need to get a clear picture of how the person is likely to perform in the role you have in mind for them, not just how they performed at one company or in one position.  You should be able to identify consistencies that will help you determine a candidate’s strengths and where there is opportunity for improvement.  Remove inconsistencies by checking another reference for clarification.  Hopefully, when references are complete, you’ll also be able to determine if the candidate fits within your corporate culture.

If you’d like to learn more about Executek Recruiting Partners or our recruiting services, contact us today.  Whether you are considering outsourcing a critical search assignment or just want information on our process and services, we’re available and excited to speak with you.

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