The reference check is usually considered a minor player in the hiring process, a quiet, supportive presence that doesn’t often have the power to derail a strong candidacy or give new life to a faltering one. Some companies skip reference checks altogether, since their minds tend to be made up at that late stage in the process. And even when mangers rely heavily on reference checks to make a decision, they sometimes follow false leads or fail to ask the right questions, so the value of the process is often diminished.
If you plan to ask your candidates for references, make sure you use these references to inform your decision. And if you’re committing any of the errors below, take a closer look at your reference checking strategy.
Common Reference Check Mistakes
1. Inconsistency. If you’re going to check one candidate’s references, check them all. You can wait until you’ve narrowed the pool to a few finalists, but give each finalist’s references an equal chance to put in a good (or mediocre) word.
2. Making the offer before the reference check instead of after. If you make the offer first and use the reference check as a contingency, you limit your own options. You’ve already selected a candidate and made an unofficial commitment—So it will likely take an extreme red flag or gravely serious problem for you to back pedal. Don’t do that to yourself. Leave the door open until you’ve heard every voice you need to hear to make an informed decision.
3. Ignoring the proximity between the reference and the candidate. Make sure you take this distance into account. And take the experience level of the reference into account as well. Often a candidate will come recommended by a C-level executive, but this person won’t have much detail to offer since she rarely saw the candidate in action. On the other hand, a low level coworker who sat side-by-side with the candidate will have more to say, but less to offer from a management perspective.
4. Asking leading questions. Keep your questions open ended. Instead of “Was she easy to work with?” ask “How would you describe what it was like to work with her?” Ask questions that encourage thoughtful responses, like “Which tasks were you most likely to trust to this candidate? Which tasks would you assign to someone else?”
5. Not listening carefully to the answers. Listen carefully and read between the lines. And don’t let neutral responses lie. If a reference seems indifferent, ask follow-up questions to get to the heart of the matter.
For more specific guidance on your reference checking process, and for a list of questions that can help make your reference checks more efficient, contact the Des Moines staffing experts at the Palmer Group.