Checking candidate references has been a formal part of the hiring process for a while, but it’s more than just a formality. When you take steps to conduct references, you get more perspectives about a candidate and additional information to help you make a well-informed hiring decision.

The Importance of Reference Checks

Checking references provides you with additional views of a candidate’s experiences and capability beyond what the candidate has told you during the interview process. Considering that candidates sometimes embellish or misrepresent their background and experience, obtaining the views of individuals who have worked with a candidate can help you uncover the truth and avoid making a bad hire.

When done right, checking references during the hiring process can help you answer lingering questions about a candidate or gain perspective on an area of concern. Recent research shows reference checks can also sway a hiring decision altogether. In a 2019 Accountemps survey, senior managers reported they remove one in three candidates (34 percent) from consideration for a position after checking their references.

Even if reference checks don’t motivate you to change your mind about a candidate, they can deliver a range of benefits. References can help you to do the following:

  • Verify candidate job experiences and skills 
  • Learn about candidate work habits and potential cultural fit
  • Uncover additional candidate skills or other information not surfaced in the interview and assessment process

How to Build A Smooth Reference-Checking Process

Effective reference checking requires ample preparation, so you can increase the chances of a timely response and make the most of the information you receive.

There are different ways to conduct reference checks, including reference interviews by phone and standardized questions via email. Whatever method you choose, your background screening provider can help by contacting references and organizing responses in an easy-to-read format. When you work with a background screening partner who doesn’t stop at three contact attempts, you benefit from the extra effort it often takes to get an actionable response from all references.

Since a candidate’s former manager or coworker can take anywhere from several hours to several days to respond to a reference request, having help from your background check provider can also save time. Instead of spending precious HR resources chasing down references and waiting for callbacks, you can focus on other activities while verification specialists do the reference-checking legwork.

There are other actions you can take to make sure you get relevant and valuable information from reference checks. To build a smooth reference checking process, take the following steps:

  • Ask candidates to provide enough references (most organizations ask for three). Having three or more individuals to provide a reference allows you to get a broad view of a candidate’s past employment, especially if one of the references doesn’t respond.
  • Encourage candidates to remind their references they may receive a call or email, and to respond promptly.
  • Make sure you obtain complete contact details for references, including phone and email.
  • Ask well-thought-out questions.

Top 10 Questions to Ask Candidate References

A candidate’s references are only as good as the questions you ask. Here are ten questions to help you obtain valuable reference information:

1. In what capacity did you work with the candidate and for how long?

Asking this question may seem like a no-brainer, but you don’t want to skip it and later discover the reference had a limited working relationship with your candidate. Someone who worked side-by-side with a candidate for several years can provide more relevant information than someone who worked with him or her indirectly or for a short time. 

This question can also help you understand reporting relationships, which provides more context for the remaining questions. For example, it will be helpful to know if the candidate and the reference were once peers, but later moved into a reporting relationship.

2. What was a key accomplishment of the candidate in the time you worked together?

Asking about past accomplishments helps you see the scope and impact of a candidate’s achievements in past roles. It can also help you determine how similar accomplishments would contribute to the candidate’s success in your organization.

3. What are the candidate’s strengths and areas for improvement?

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but hearing how a reference would describe those characteristics helps you see how others perceived the candidate in previous roles. It also helps you to see how well those strengths and weaknesses align with the requirements of the role you seek to fill.

4. What makes the candidate unique?

This question prompts references to describe what makes a candidate special, whether it be something about their attitude, special skills, or character. The answers can provide you with more information about candidate performance and potential to apply their unique capabilities. 

5. In what kind of environment do you believe the candidate can thrive?

When you want to learn more about potential culture fit, it’s preferable to know the type of cultures where candidates have worked best. This question can provide insights about the work environments where candidates have been most productive, as well as their key motivators and what keeps them engaged.

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6. How have you seen the candidate react to a tough challenge?

Understanding how candidates have dealt with conflict and other challenges can help you learn more about their problem-solving style and flexibility. Whether they had to deal with a difficult personality, a tough manager, or a work failure, this question can help you see how they behave in tough times.

7. How have you seen the candidate behave in a team setting?

Given the amount of teamwork required in most roles, it helps to know how a candidate communicates, builds consensus, or leads a team. This question can help you understand the kinds of roles a candidate has played within a team and how he or she collaborates with others.

8. Why did the candidate leave your organization?

This question allows you insight into the circumstances surrounding previous departures. For example, did they leave voluntarily or involuntarily? This question can also provide you with additional information such as how they behaved in their final days and how much assistance they provided to their replacement.

9. If you could hire the candidate again, would you? Why or why not?

Ideally, you want to hear the reference say they would hire the candidate again. If not, you want to understand why.

10. What advice can you offer a future employer of the candidate?

Since you want to set up every new hire for success, it’s essential to understand what advice a former employer would give about helping the candidate make the most of a new role.  Suggestions from references can help you identify training or other preparation to incorporate into the candidate’s onboarding.

Get Valuable Answers with the Right Questions

Reference checking isn’t a check-the-box exercise, but rather a tool to help you make reliable hiring decisions. Instead of getting short, less meaningful responses, or no response at all, you can obtain full reference details to help you determine how to move forward with a candidate. With the support of your background screening provider and ten practical questions, you can make reference checks a value-added element of your hiring process.  

To learn about how you can make more game-changing improvements to your background screening program, check out our Guide to Auditing and Improving your Background Screening Program.

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