A Guide to conducting an employee reference check

Imagine a scenario like this – 

After hours of scouring through candidate profiles, you are happy to find one that fits into the role and the organization. The amazing part is that everything about this candidate seems perfect – their resume, their responses, their readiness to accept the offer, and to join in immediately.

Did you get lucky to find the perfect candidate? You wonder.

This is when you can use reference checks, to put your doubts to rest!

Quite obviously, every candidate makes a resume showcasing their achievements and skills. Sometimes, candidates also hire professional resume creators, who make their experience look exceptional. Candidates, appearing for interviews, attempt to present themselves in the best light.

Of course, it is okay for candidates to do so but it doesn’t give the recruiter the real picture of the candidate. It is also very tricky for an interviewer to completely and accurately evaluate the candidate in a few interactions.

What is a reference check?

A reference check is verifying a prospective candidate’s information to make a good hiring decision. The candidate provides the recruiter with professional or sometimes personal references. The recruiter can then verify important information about the candidate like their employment history and qualifications.   

Professional references may include bosses and peers, who have first-hand information about the candidate. Recruiters can verify the candidate’s performance standards, attendance, strengths and weaknesses, and other competencies needed for the job role.  

Most of the time, candidates provide professional references that can be used to check their proficiency at work. 

Personal references are professors, teachers, or mentors from their university or school, group leaders of community clubs, or someone who can offer an unbiased character reference of the candidate.

A recruiter rarely asks for a personal reference (also called a character reference). A personal reference is used to gauge the key personality traits, integrity, and temperament of a candidate. 

Why should you do a reference check?

Ideally, reference checks must be done for candidates that you think will fit the role. This usually happens in the latter stages of recruitment. However, it may be a time-consuming process and therefore, many organizations outsource this activity. 

A need for a reference check can be best explained by the phrase – ‘A stitch in time saves nine’.  

Conducting reference checks on prospective candidates offers the following benefits to the organization: 

#1 Vetting the information provided by the candidate

Cross-checking the information on the candidate’s resume, application, and/or interview is the primary purpose and benefit of reference checking. You can check basic information such as their designation, job roles, projects they have worked on, and skill sets (especially technical ones).

People who have worked closely with the candidate will be able to provide more or less accurate feedback. You must also keep in mind that the references provided by the candidate are people that they know very well. Their feedback may be colored due to a positive bias and you may get to hear only good things about the candidate. 

To get information beyond possible bias, you must ask follow-up questions to get to the specifics. For example, if the reference appreciates the candidate’s interpersonal skills, ask for instances where the candidate showed these skills. 

#2 Getting additional information about the candidate

Apart from verifying the data provided by the candidate, you can also gather extra information like their expertise, strengths, and weaknesses, willingness to learn, and even get a glimpse of their temperament.  

#3 Predicting a ‘job fit’

Through the various rounds of interviews, you would have already evaluated the knowledge quotient and skill sets. By asking the right questions to the references, you can check if the candidate will be a good fit for the organizational culture. 

By paying attention to the way the reference responds to your questions, you will get an idea of the candidate’s credibility.

#4 Identifying red flags, if any

You may already know that a reference is a well-wisher or a friend to the candidate. So, they are more likely to praise the candidate than provide realistic feedback. Any inconsistency between their responses can alert you to identify possible red flags. 

In case, the reference is unable to give you details about simple questions, it may indicate that they didn’t work closely and therefore the reference may not be the best person to share feedback about the candidate.

Major red flags include:

  • Absenteeism or tardiness
  • Slack in performance or meeting deadlines
  • Non-compliance with company policies
  • Integrity or attitude issues 

Any illicit activities of the candidate can be identified through a thorough reference check. The more details you seek, the easier it will be for you to realize if the candidate has embellished some of their skills and achievements.

#5 Making informed hiring decisions

Reference checks can dispel any doubts you may have about a potential candidate. But this is possible only by being objective and following the right line of questioning. Otherwise, you may fall prey to confirmation bias. 

It can also help you avoid revenue losses due to hiring mistakes and prevent the tarnishing of your brand image in the market.  

Taking it one step further, a thorough reference check can help in maintaining the safety of your employees and customers.  This was iterated in a study by PBSA, where it was stated that 83% of organizations considered a reference check important for protecting the employees and the customers. 

#6 Assessing a candidate’s potential for success

We know that past performance is the best predictor of future success. The feedback shared by the references, along with the analysis from your interviews can help you gauge the potential of the candidate.

It can also help you decide the role that the candidate will best fit in and the responsibilities that can be entrusted to them. 

How to conduct a reference check?

A reference check is more in-depth than a background check because it extends to gaining insights about the candidate rather than just collecting information. 

Here is how you initiate the process of reference checking:

  • In the final rounds of interviews, ask the candidate to provide 2-3 references of their supervisors or people with whom they have worked closely. The candidate must give their names, designations, and email ids.  In case, the candidate has not left their current organization yet, you can ask them to provide references from their previous jobs.
  • Inform the candidate that you will be contacting their references in the forthcoming days or weeks. 
  • Alternatively, instead of asking the candidate to provide references of their choice, you could ask them to share the details of their supervisors.
  • Prepare your list of questions as per the job role, organizational culture, and the information you gathered about the candidate in the personal interview.

The following framework can be used for a reference check: 

  1. Reference checks usually happen over a phone call or email. You could call the reference directly or email them in advance to fix a date and time for your conversation. The latter is essential if you know that your conversation is going to be longer.
  2. If you are calling directly, identify yourself first, along with your designation and the name of your company. 
  3. Inform them about the purpose of your call and mention the name of the candidate and the role that they have applied for.
  4. Ask them if it is a good time to have the conversation or if they would like to schedule a meeting at a later time. 
  5. Continue only if they consent to the conversation. 
  6. Also, ensure that they consent to act as a reference to the candidate and assure them that their feedback will be kept confidential.
  7. Give a brief description of the role that the candidate is applying for so that they can share relevant and contextual feedback. 
  8. Give them time to answer your questions and refrain from asking leading questions or putting words in their mouth.

The 20 best questions to ask for reference check

Here’s a list of reference check questions you can ask: 

#1 What was your working relationship with the candidate and since when?

#2 What was the candidate’s designation and what was their job role? 

#3 Did the candidate fulfill their duties?

#4 What were the candidate’s unique skills, strengths, and weaknesses? 

#5 What was it like to supervise the candidate?

#6 What value did the candidate add to their team and the organization?

#7 How well did the candidate work under pressure?

#8 Was the candidate reliable in terms of meeting deadlines and quality of work?

#9 How was the candidate’s equation with his peers and other stakeholders?

#10 Was the candidate’s attendance and punctuality in place?

#11 Did the candidate adhere to the company’s policies?

#12 Did the candidate receive any complaints from customers, their team members, or other stakeholders? 

#13 Did you feel the need to reprimand, warn or discipline them?

#14 Was the candidate promoted or demoted?

#15 What skill or achievement of the candidate do you remember?

#16 How was the candidate’s attitude towards work and the organization?

#17 Do you think the candidate is suitable for the applied role?

#18 Do you know why they left your organization?

#19 Would you rehire the candidate; why or why not?

#20 Is there anything else you would like to share?

Wrap up

Reference checks play a big role in conversion rates in recruitment. Sifting through all the information of a candidate to ascertain the quality of the hire will help you make the right hiring decision. 

Thus, the outcome of a reference check can affect the bottom line and top line of the organization. 

To sum it up, reference checks help you have the confidence you need to hire potential candidates without any second guesses.

FAQs on Reference Check Questions

How many references must a candidate provide?

The candidate must share 2-3 professional references, including their name, phone number, email address, and the working relationship with the candidate. At least two reference checks must be completed before extending an offer.

What must a recruiter do in case the candidate provides only personal references?

The candidate could ask for references with the least personal connection with the candidate viz. professors or peers in a community club or group. It is necessary to document why other references were unavailable.

Is it necessary that a recruiter contacts only the references provided by the candidate?

No. A recruiter can check with other unmentioned references. This is called a back-door reference check. These could be former managers/colleagues who seem like credible sources of feedback. However, finding these references on your own could be time-consuming.

What is the mode of conducting a reference check?

A reference check is usually conducted either over a phone call or email.

At what stage must a reference check be conducted?

Reference checks are typically done just before making an offer to the candidate. Some companies have a clause of confirmation subject to a satisfactory background check report. If the candidate fails to clear the reference checks during the probation period, the offer of employment may be withdrawn.

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