Woman talking on phone in coffee shop

A hiring manager asks us about reference checking:

I don’t really see the point in conducting reference checks. From the reference checks I’ve conducted they’ve provided a good reference but the candidate hasn’t performed as expected, leaving me to wonder if the reference was lying or even real. So, my questions is, are reference checks really worthwhile and how do you know if they’re telling the truth?

Firstly, to answer if reference checks are worthwhile, it’s a resounding YES. You’d be surprised how often we receive negative feedback during reference checks. A recent study by CareerBuilder highlighted just how important reference checking can be.

Some highlights from the study are:

  • Three in five employers said references did not have good things to say about candidates.
  • 69% of employers said they have changed their minds about a candidate after speaking with a reference, with 47% reporting they had a less favorable opinion.
  •  29% of employers have caught fake references on applications.

In terms of getting the most value out of references and how to uncover the truth – the first big step is making sure you have the right references. We’ve written about this previously in this post about candidates over-selling themselves (see last point). You want to validate with the candidate that the references provided are people who can speak directly about their performance and give clear examples. When reviewing the reference list with the candidate, ask direct questions such as “did this person conduct your last performance review?”

During a reference call, your biggest weapon is probing questions. If you feel a reference is only providing surface answers, follow up with statements like “can you tell me more about that” or “can you give me a specific example”. Don’t be afraid of leaving silences as most people will instinctively want to fill the silence and give you more detail.

It’s also important to make sure that references understand the discussion will be kept completely confidential and won’t be shared with the candidate (this is actually illegal!)

Thorough reference checking can take a lot of time but it’s a key part of the hiring process that shouldn’t be overlooked. We conduct a minimum of 2-3 reference checks for every candidate we present and this can take up to a week so be patient.