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Check, Please! Tips for Successful Reference Checks

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Skipping reference checks or treating them lightly is a recipe for a bad hire. A candidate with a past history of questionable performance or inadequate experience can come back to haunt you and damage your professional reputation as a manager. Performing due diligence with reference checks is a textbook example of spending time and effort early on to save yourself headaches down the road. Here are tips on checking references before you make an offer.

Get the Basics
The minimum number of references to contact is three. Verify employment dates, job titles, previous salary, key responsibilities, and the applicant's reason for leaving. Accuracy is essential and inconsistent information is a red flag signifying that something could be amiss. When a candidate supplies a document or copy, contact the state licensing board or the college or university registrar's office to verify it. If you are unable to get in direct touch with the reference listed, ask to be connected to the HR Department. At a minimum they will be able to verify employment, give dates and confirm a job title.

Focus on Performance
Former employers usually accentuate the positive when asked to discuss professionals they used to manage. Try to probe deeper and to focus exclusively on the candidate's performance. Ask questions like "How did they fit into your company's business culture?" and "As far as job performance goes, in what areas do you feel they can improve?" Pay special attention to managers who seem to clam up at times or sound neutral. Often they are telling you a lot by not telling you anything. The reason they may not be talking is because they subscribe to the adage "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Get the Big Picture
Because you are focusing on an individual, you can lose sight of the bigger picture. Always ask how the person functioned as part of a team and get specific examples of how they worked with others. Try to get references with varying relationships to the candidate so you can gauge how both superiors and coworkers evaluate them.

Keep it Legal
Prospective employers should also ask each job candidate to sign a comprehensive waiver or release form, permitting them to contact listed references. The statute of limitation on reference check extends back seven years, so there is no point in pursuing employment references that go further back. Always remember that federal law prohibits you from asking questions pertaining to age, sex, race or religion. It's always a good idea to consult an attorney familiar with the labor laws as they relate to your specific location.

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