How to do a reference check

Reference checks are an important part of the selection process. Some studies show that reference checking is more useful in predicting applicant performance than skilled interviewing. Because reference checking is so important, ensure that it is built in to your selection and recruitment plan, and that you allow sufficient time for checking.

Reference checking is usually conducted towards the end of the recruitment process, when a preferred candidate is about to be offered a job, or has already been offered a job, subject to reference checking.

Note: It is important to gain the candidate’s approval before proceeding with reference checks.

Purpose of reference checking

There are two purposes of reference checking:

1. Verifying facts relating to a candidate’s previous career, such as:
• Dates of employment, position(s) held
• Job duties
• Number of team members reporting
• Specific accountabilities
• Nature of products/services dealt with
• Salary package
• Academic qualifications

2. Qualitative assessment of past performance, for example:
• Obtaining new information
• Confirming impressions and eliciting reasonably objective assessments of performance from immediate managers, teachers, associates etc.

Factual information can be easily verified. This can often be obtained from sources other than the immediate superior of the candidate being checked, eg. HR department, university records office, etc.

Qualitative assessments are far more difficult to obtain. Difficulties may arise because:

• The referee may be unfairly biased in favour or against a former staff member.
• The candidate may still be employed by a potential referee and not wish to disclose his/her intention of leaving.
• The candidate may have left a previous employer a long time ago so that either the immediate manager is no longer with the company or cannot accurately recollect details concerning the candidate.

Evaluating the reference

Before speaking to a referee, think about the information you need to obtain and the questions you will ask. You may need to probe and ask follow up questions.

Some of the issue you may need to consider when evaluating a reference are:

• The referee must have had an adequate opportunity to observe the applicant in job relevant situations.

• A qualitative assessment may be useless unless they are based on records of formal appraisals conducted by the applicant’s immediate managers.

• The referee should be competent to make evaluations. The referee may not have sufficient skills or experience to answer certain questions and make judgements.

• The referee should be open and candid.

• The referee should show reasonable objectivity in assessing the candidate, particularly where there has been some conflict or competition between them. Equally, the referee should not appear to be unduly biased in favour of the candidate.

• The more recent the reference, the more valid and reliable it is likely to be. For example, a reference relating to a similar job to the one the applicant is applying for is more relevant than a reference relating to a completely dissimilar job.

• Personal “character” references are usually poor sources of data.

• If there are insufficient “quality” referees, ask the referee you approach: “Is there anyone else I can talk to who would be familiar with the applicant’s performance?”

Referees for applicants currently in employment

The candidate’s current line manager should always be contacted for a reference prior to final appointment.

This should only occur if the person is the preferred candidate on the short list and all other reference checks have proved satisfactory. The candidate should be advised that this will happen when they are in the final selection stage.

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