Is a reference really any use? Some suggestions for reference checking

Thumbs upWhen you are considering a new employee, you will undoubtedly want to ask for references so that you can get an honest opinion of them. Usually at least one of these will be from an ex or current employer. The difficult part is making the reference mean something by asking the right questions when you speak to the referee.

The first thing is to make sure that the employment process clearly tells the candidate how you will follow up on their references and what information you will be checking. This not only gives them chance to object but more importantly, it lays out the ground rules about how you will proceed.

Fact and truthfulness are really what underpins a reference request

Fact and truthfulness are really what underpins a reference request. When it comes to asking the right questions of a referee, you can take that as your starting point. In short, the best questions to ask when checking a reference are ones that have clearly defined responses. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Start with confirming dates of employment and job title
  • It is reasonable to ask what duties the candidate performed in their old role. If you require a defined skillset or experience, don’t be afraid to ask if a particular job involved them. It’s also OK to ask how much or how often the candidate was previously required to use the skills you need so you can assess experience
  • Find out if the candidate had any particular achievements or was outstanding in some way. Sadly, candidates can sometimes see listing achievements as boasting and downplay them. Often, giving the referee chance to sing the candidates praises (or not), may reveal some hidden talents
  • Give the old employer a brief description of the role to see if they feel the candidate has the skill set
  • On a similar note, you’re allowed to ask if there has ever been a reason to discipline or warn the candidate for work-related problems
  • Don’t forget what may seem to be the ‘fringe’ questions. For example, if it is relevant, then ask whether the candidate would be considered a team player or similar. If they are joining a close-knit team, then this is a vital part of their suitability for the job
  • Ask about their progression in the old company. Were they promoted or given additional responsibilities? What about perhaps seemingly less prominent things such as Shift Leader or Fire Warden that show they were trusted and reliable?
  • Make sure you remember the basics such as punctuality and reliability
  • While you probably want to avoid asking why the person is leaving, you can ask about their overall performance. Questions such as ‘Would you have them work for you again’? Will give you an idea of how the previous employer really views the candidate

One final thought on references. If you find you have a reasonable rapport with the person offering the reference why not ask them an open question about the candidate such as ‘Is there anything else that you think I should know?’. Give them the opportunity to talk about the candidate in their own way without being prompted.

There is a commonly held belief that it is illegal in some way to give a bad reference

There is a commonly held belief that it is illegal in some way to give a bad reference, so therefore they mean nothing. Ultimately though, as long as you are sticking to the right questions and what you ask is relevant to the role you are looking to fill, then there is really no such thing as a good or bad reference. Just a factually accurate one.

Used correctly, a reference is far from useless. It will hopefully confirm to you that you are considering the right person. It will also give you some real insight into how the candidate will perform in the role. If you are looking for your dream role, get in touch with us today!

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