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Reference checks are a common practice during the final steps of the hiring process and they can provide great insight into a candidate's fit for the position. Sometimes, a candidate will interview with flying colors and look experienced on paper, but they can turn out to not be who they say they are when it comes time to perform.

Checking references allows employers to confirm a prospective employee's experience and skills so they can make a hiring decision with confidence. Reference checking may also offer insight into a potential employee's character or weakness, but it is always best to stick to the facts and not let the professional reference's tone of voice sway your opinion of the potential hire.

We've included a guide for some important questions to ask when checking references and how to abide by the laws in place that protect your company from being sued for discrimination or defamation by a candidate.

Research the Law and Obtain Authorization

Before you reach out to a candidate's professional references, you should always be aware of the federal and state laws surrounding discrimination and defamation. There is a common misconception that it is illegal to perform reference checks today, but this is not the case. That being said, companies have been sued by their candidates in the past for reference checks that did not abide by discrimination and defamation laws.

Research the laws in your state and alert your candidate that you will be checking their references. It's a great practice to obtain their signature on a document authorizing that you have the right to reach out to their references. By allowing your candidate to give you the "okay," you can protect yourself in the future and avoid unforeseen legal penalties.

Most candidates will willingly authorize permission for you to reach out to references, but it is also important to note that some candidates may not want their current employer to know that they are applying to other places yet. If this is the case, you should respect the candidate's privacy and work with them in another way to confirm their experience and skills.

When to Start Reference Checking

The best time to start reference checking your candidates is after the last round of the interview process when you have narrowed down your pool of attractive candidates to a small few that have made it to the final selection process. 

After you have obtained authorization to check each candidate's references, you should compile a list of questions for the references and a procedure or reference checking form for documenting the facts. 

It is best for the hiring manager to perform the reference checks or the person who conducted the interview. This practice ensures that you are remaining consistent and that no information is lost or misrecorded with too many reference checkers. 

The Best Approach to Reference Checking

The best approach to the reference checking process is to begin with the references that the candidate mentioned in their interview. Candidates often mention previous managers, mentors, or team members that they worked with at a certain time or on a specific project.

When you speak to the references that the candidate mentioned from a previous employer, you should always stick to the facts. Factual reference checks are the best model because they protect you from legal issues and they still provide valuable information.

Avoid looking too much into the reference's tone of voice or emotional responses. Be wary of references that provide too much detail into the candidate's personal life. The reference may have biases and personal conflicts with the candidate that is not relevant and too much attention to these opinions or additional comments can result in a defamation suit. 

At the same time, if the reference simply states that the candidate never worked on a project that they said that they did, this is a red flag. Other warning signs include inconsistencies in the candidate's stated employment dates or negative feedback on their performance.

At the same time, a reference that gives excessive positive feedback but cannot provide specifics, may not be an honest reference. Ask follow-up questions and ask for examples when the reference makes over-arching statements. Use your judgment and take notes on the solid facts.

If you make a phone call to a reference and the call does not go through, it is possible that the candidate gave a fake reference, but always double-check with them to be sure. Some references may have changed their phone number without the candidate knowing or the number may just be off by a digit. 

No matter what, cross-check the facts and look at the complete picture of the candidate provided by the two to three references that you call. If facts don't line up between the references this may be a bad sign, but it may also signify that one of the references simply had a personal issue with the candidate. You can also always ask the candidate for additional references if you feel that you need more information.

Use the two-out-of-three rule and chose the promising candidate whose references align the most with what they said and represented in the interview and on their resume.

Questions for Reference Checks

Here are some good sample reference check questions for you to ask:

  • When did the candidate work at your company and for how long? What was their position?
  • What were the candidate's primary job responsibilities in their role at your company?
  • What was the candidate's biggest accomplishment at your company?
  • What is the candidate's area of weakness?
  • What additional training could they benefit from?
  • How did the candidate perform as a leader?
  • How did the candidate take constructive criticism?
  • What did the candidate's attendance record look like?

Some references may have company policies that only allow you to speak to their HR Department and confirm dates of employment and role title. These facts will still confirm that the job candidate is telling the truth which will help you make an informed hiring decision.

By maintaining structured reference checks that stick to verifying the facts, you can avoid negligent hiring and make a confident decision for a successful new hire.

For more information on the hiring process, you can check out our blog with articles like How to Attract the Top Talent and The Top Reasons You're losing Candidates.

A staffing agency can also help you check references and make an informed decision about a new hire which is why recruiting is the most effective business strategy. FirstPRO can help you recruit and hire the best candidates for your needs.

Visit our Recruitment Services page to learn more and Contact Us today so we can take the recruitment and hiring process off your back.