Using Reference Checks the Right Way

By March 8, 2017Culture, Team Building

Conducting a reference check is analogous to reading reviews on a product before making a big purchase. Both rely on the opinions of total strangers, and both serve to confirm (or deny) our own suppositions. The only difference is you won’t get a full-refund on a new hire, no matter how long you stay on the line.

Reference checks have been a part of recruiting since long before I was born, but I’m not so sure we’re using them in an optimal way. The typical hiring process involves several rounds of interviews, with multiple people involved in order to share the risk. We evaluate candidates not only on an absolute scale, but in relation to each other. Then, when it’s all said and done, just in case we’ve completely missed the mark, we conduct reference checks to seek validation from a total stranger.

Would you go to dinner at a restaurant whose only positive Yelp reviews are written by the owner? Probably not. So why do we let candidates provide the references? You wouldn’t knowingly connect a potential employer with people who have bad reviews to share, why would you expect your candidates to do so?

If you were given a two-month test drive of a vehicle and you loved it, would you return it because a stranger said the car isn’t great in off-road conditions? No, because you aren’t using the car for off-roading! This is pretty similar to asking an ex-boss how their employee faired in a work environment that is likely different from yours.

References are biased and often provide information based on circumstances different than our own. If this is how we’re going to conduct references, we need to take them with a grain of salt. However, I’d rather see us leverage reference checks for a more successful on-boarding.

How do we do this?

Firstly, rather than asking candidates for references, ask for permission to contact a selection of their previous employers – by title. This requires more effort, but it’s the easiest way to get a more objective reference.

Secondly, adjust the line of questioning to reveal information about how to best work with the candidate. You want to know about his strengths, weaknesses and work styles. How did she contribute to group initiatives? What motivates him? What managerial style is best for her? The answers to these questions provide valuable insight into what it’s actually like to work with this human! This knowledge can be used to aid in your new employee’s transition and ensure that you are set up for success together.

Next time you conduct a reference check, think of it as doing research for your employee onboarding. Learning this important information, up front, will go a long way to helping with engagement and retention. If current trends continue, retention rates will only get shorter, and you want to do the right things, from the start – for each and every new recruit.



If you want to save yourself the time and hassle of checking references, try a Culture+Purpose Reference Check.  Our template makes it easy to reach references by email, and it asks the important questions as outlined in this post. References can complete the form on their own time and responses will be sent to your inbox.

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