Effective reference checks: Early, open-ended, and expansive

Written by: Charlene Fitzpatrick
Published on: Nov 16, 2017


The hiring process can be difficult, but one of the easiest ways to narrow your search for the “right” person is to conduct a reference check. Not only can you confirm information from a potential hire’s resume and interview, but you can learn new invaluable information that the candidate might not have shared. Most importantly, reference checks can save you time and money by keeping you from hiring someone who is not a good fit.

Here are my tips for making getting the most out of reference check:

Check references early

Contrary to what you might think, saving reference checks for last isn’t always the best idea. Conducting the reference check early on in the process can provide clarity around which individuals to advance, and which to eliminate. If you wait to check references after you’ve already made your hiring decision, the chances of you absorbing any negative information about the new hire are slim, which can lead to costly mistakes.

Ask the right questions

It is imperative to always ask open-ended questions, and never cut off the person talking: Your goal is to have a conversation about the applicant, not to get yes-or-no answers. Realistically, and as is proper, most employers follow rules regarding what they can share about previous employees. However, that shouldn’t stop you from asking for information that will assist in your decision. Below are a few examples of questions to ask:

  • Can you share specific examples of how the applicant was successful or unsuccessful in their role?

  • Can you share specific examples of the applicant’s weaknesses and strengths, and how they impacted the organization?

  • What unique skills did the applicant bring to your team, and how did it affect results?

  • What are three areas in which the candidate could improve?

  • How would you describe this applicant’s absenteeism record?

  • Did you ever find it necessary to reprimand or discipline this person, and if so, what were the circumstances?

  • Do you think the applicant is suitable for the position they are applying for?

  • Why did they leave your employment?

  • Would you rehire the candidate, and why or why not?

Dig deeper

Of course, everyone lists references that will give them five star reviews; that’s why their names are listed. While these references are a good place to start, it’s necessary to dig deeper if you want the raw and unbiased truth about a potential new hire. Don’t be afraid to ask the references listed by your candidate for more people to talk to: Speaking with people who your candidate didn’t list ensures you will get very honest information. The purpose isn’t to disqualify your candidate, but rather to solidify the information you’ve gathered from the candidate and their references.

Charlene Fitzpatrick is president of The HR Girl, a human resources consulting firm that works with for-profit and nonprofit businesses to build HR infrastructure, resolve workplace complaints, ensure compliance, and more. Find more of her advice on The HR Girl blog, or by following her on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The content from this article originally appeared on The HR Girl blog in two separate posts.

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