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How Much Truth Is There to a Reference Check?

Enterprise_Mobility Some employers are weary of reference checks because they’ve been burned in the past; a misleading glowing reference that ultimately led to the hiring of a subpar employee. According to a 2013 CareerBuilder survey, 27 percent of employers report that a single bad hire can cost more than $50,000. With this conflicting information, how much stock should hiring managers place in reference checks? 

A major part of the candidate screening process is the reference check. But sometimes, the candidate is so impressive in person, you forego the usual procedures. Good in theory, but bad in practice. In fact, a 2012 CareerBuilder survey found the following truths surrouding background checks:

  • 3 in 10 responding employers had heard only negative things about a potential hire from a former employer
  • 29 percent had detected a false reference on a job seeker’s application – a strong sign that the applicant is less than honest, or overly concerned about what actual references would say about them.

By speaking to the right people and asking the right questions, you can find out plenty about your prospective new hire before bringing them on board, and potentially, making a very expensive mistake.


Reference Checks: Who to Talk to

This screening process usually starts by reaching out to the candidate's professional references, or people who have worked alongside the candidate. They might have become friends with the prospect, but by no means, should professional references be an actual friend or family member outside a work setting.

The first question to ask is a simple one, “What is your relationship to the candidate?” Always ask to speak to someone who directly supervised or managed your candidate; ideally on a daily basis. Also, you can watch for verbal clues. While in recent years, legal constraints have made it more difficult to directly badmouth a former employee; you can often pick up “bad vibes” from long pauses, hesitation or even an outright tone of bitterness or hostility.

10 Questions to Ask During a Reference Check: 

Once you’ve made a connection with the right person, it’s critical to ask the right questions. Think of “essay questions” rather than simple “yes or no” questions, as these will make the reference think more deeply about the candidate’s strengths or weaknesses. You’ll also have more time to interpret the subtext of their remarks.

1. Verify the candidate’s dates of employment, title and role. It’s tempting for candidates to fudge these, so you’ll want to make sure you have the right information.

2. Company politics aside, would you rehire this person? What was his or her reason for leaving the job?

3. What was the candidates beginning and ending salary? This information can help you when it comes time to negotiate a salary with your new hire.

4. Did they ever go above and beyond, or on the flip side, turn in substandard work or miss deadlines? How did he or she deal with mistakes? By getting a better idea of how a candidate performed their duties and dealt with errors, you will be better equipped to make a decision as to whether they are a good fit for your company’s work environment.

5. What were the candidate’s strengths? Would you describe him or her as a hard worker? This one’s simple: let the employer tell you about the candidate’s best qualities. If they struggle to come up with more than three, you might have exposed a bad candidate.

6. Ask the reference about tasks the candidate will be asked to perform in the new position. Does he or she believe the candidate is capable enough to do this job? Few people know a candidate’s abilities better than their past supervisors, so it can help you to ask if they believe the candidate will be able to perform in the job you have for them.

7. Was the candidate always on time? Were there any issues with frequent lateness or absenteeism?

8. Did the candidate get along with his or her peers? What about managers? If they dealt with customers, what was their manner like and were there ever any problems or complaints?

9. Was the candidate ever promoted or demoted during his or her time at the company?

10. Is there anything else I should consider before I hire this candidate? This final question gives the former employer a chance to talk about anything you’ve missed – and perhaps let some vital information slip.

There’s one more question you may want to ask as well, “What do you think the candidate needs to advance his or her career development?”  This could reveal all kinds of useful information. Perhaps the candidate has important gaps in their education or training that prevented them from moving up in their previous job, or perhaps they were more than capable of moving up but management was fully staffed already. 

Taking the time to perform reference checks can be a chore, but it can also reveal valuable information about your candidate that you won’t find anywhere else. Call with an open mind and be prepared to hear the good and the bad – with thousands of dollars riding on your decision, a few phone calls shouldn’t be too hard for you to make.


Brett McIntyre is the Digital Marketing Manager at Crimcheck, the leading pre-employment background check company. Including criminal checks, driving records, drug screening, employment history and medical sanctions checks. Helping HR and Staffing professionals daily.

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