I recently had the opportunity to meet with Larry Smith, president of Kathbern Management, a leading recruiting firm based in Toronto. Kathbern Management focuses on working with business owners to help them find and hire the key people that will make them successful.
I asked Larry to talk to me about why reference checking is such an important part of the hiring process. The topic of reference checks comes up a lot in the hiring world. Some hiring managers want to “go with their gut” when they meet the perfect candidate, but others swear by doing thorough checks.
What’s a reference check?
A reference check is conducted to verify information given to you by a candidate. In its simplest form, it’s ensuring that facts about the candidate (employment history, titles, length of employment, education) are correct. It can also include searching personal information (with the candidate’s permission) about the possible existence of a criminal record, educational achievements, driver’s license status and credit history—depending on the industry and role that they will be engaged in. Reference checks allow you to ensure that the candidate is giving you all of the correct information about their past. You can ask questions to the candidate’s references to get a feel for the candidate’s working style, management style, or anything else that may be relevant to the role.
Which candidates should I conduct a reference check on?
You want to do a reference check on every candidate you’re considering hiring, no matter how good the candidate may seem. When you interview a candidate, you’re taking their word as the truth and unfortunately, some candidates aren’t always the most forthcoming.
Any truly great candidate is going to have excellent references—so verifying that fact through the reference checking process should be easy. Some people can be nervous during interviews, or shy, or can be chatty—it doesn’t mean they won’t be a great person to have on your team. Sometimes calling references will turn a “maybe” candidate into a “yes,” depending on the situation.
What references should a candidate be asked to provide?
Ideally, candidates should be asked to provide four references (two former supervisors who managed them, one co-worker and, for candidates who will be in a management role, one person who reported to them in the past). Usually, candidates are understandably unwilling to provide references from an organization where they are currently employed. Sometimes, where a candidate has had long service at an organization, references from previous employment may be difficult to find, so some flexibility may be required in the number and type of references required.
What do I ask?
Asking the right questions is a vital part of doing reference checks. You want to make sure that the referee is giving you information that will actually educate your hiring decision, so make sure to take time to plan your questions.
Don’t ask closed ended questions – for example, ask “What dates were the candidate employed? What was his last title?” instead of “Was he employed from January 2008 until December 2011? Was his title Assistant Manager?”
Also, make sure you get a feel for how the candidate works with others. If you’re looking for a manager or supervisor, this is even more important. Be specific in your line of questioning and ask about situations.
Some example questions:
• Tell me about a time he had to deal with an employee with poor performance
• How would you describe her management style?
• Tell me about a time he had to deal with a stressful situation. How did he handle it?
• Does she take feedback well? Tell me about a time she had to receive some not so great feedback. How did she respond?
A good way to end the call is with, “Given the chance, would you like to work with [candidate] again?” and see how they respond.
How to tell if a reference check is good or bad
If you ask good, pointed questions you will get the true story. However, a less than enthusiastic response to a question that is “sort of” positive is really a negative response from someone who is trying to be nice.
So, how important are reference checks?
A lot of candidates may seem amazing – and you may even think they’re an amazing fit – but a reference check will reveal if they’re a good fit for you. A reference check will save your company time and money in the long run, so take the time to call those references and find the perfect hire.