The Importance of Conducting Reference Checks When Recruiting New Talent

Reference checks should always be conducted to verify information gathered through the selection process (e.g., resume screening, interview) about candidates’ experience, performance, academic performance and professional characteristics (e.g., dependability, initiative).

Reference checks are used:

  • to verify factual information about candidates (e.g., previous positions held, length of employment),
  • to assess candidates’ competencies (e.g., abilities, skills, aptitudes, traits); and
  • occasionally, as the only source of information on competencies.

When used to assess candidates’ competencies, reference check can be used:

  • to clarify or corroborate information on the candidate obtained from other assessment techniques (e.g., an interview, a simulation exercise).
  • during a selection interview, when a candidate has provided answers about his or her past performance, the interview board may want reference checks conducted to clarify or corroborate certain aspects of the candidate’s answers and may postpone its final decision until it receives the reference check information.

In conducting reference checks, these following guidelines should be adhered to:

  • Where possible, former supervisors of the candidate should be contacted as they are the most accurate sources of information.
  • Ask specific questions about past performance rather than general questions. Examples of questions to avoid are “How did they do?” or “What do you think of this person?”
  • Try to get specific examples to support statements about the candidate — for example, if the reference says the candidate “lacked motivation,” ask “Can you give me some specific examples?”
  • Ask only questions that are related to the position requirements.
  • Assure the referees that the information they provide will be kept in confidentiality.
  • Speak to more than one reference.
  • Make note of the information provided so that it may be referred to when making the hiring decision and as a record should later queries arise.

When evaluating each competency, consider the information obtained from the relevant behavioural examples in terms of:

  • Significance — The importance of the behavioural examples in relation to the target job should be carefully considered.
  • Recency — The more recent the behaviour, the better it predicts future behaviour. More recent examples of a competency should be given more weight in the overall assessment of the competency, all other factors being equal.
  • Job relativity — The job relativity of the examples should also be factored into the assessment of the competency. Examples of candidates’ behaviours in situations that are very similar or identical to the job being filled should especially be given careful consideration.
  • Consistency — Generally, give more weight to information that is consistent across behavioural examples or across referees. Avoid giving undue weight to non-critical, unique or isolated incidents.
  • Referee forthrightness — If you have reason to believe that a referee has not been fully frank, take this into account when you evaluate the information from that referee. Some referees, given their personality, simply do not want to provide any information that could be construed in a negative light. Other referees may be trying to speed the departure of a problematic employee. Look for consistency, a pattern of behavioural evidence. Although one “neutral referee” who only verifies factual information (e.g., dates of employment) may merely have been following company policy, too many referees refusing, or being extremely reluctant, to provide behavioural examples may indicate that there were problems with the candidate’s work.