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Reference Checks - Archaic or Essential?

Reference Checks - Archaic or Essential?


How thoroughly and regularly do you do your background checks on applicants before you hire them? If you are sheepishly admitting to yourself that it's not as often or as thorough as it should be, or proudly admitting that you feel they are a waste of time and energy, here are some reasons why background checking is still as important as ever.


Reference Checks are a vital tool in assessing the suitability of your applicants. They provide insight into an individual's past behaviour in the workplace, and we all know that past behaviours is the best possible predictor of future behaviour. Reference Checks are not a waste of time if they are:

  1. Completed verbally;
  2. Done thoroughly;
  3. Conducted with the right person; and
  4. The questions are specific to the key duties, outcomes and attitudes required in the role.


Here are some easy to implement tips to help you get the most out of your reference checking:

  • Speak rather than write. This is one time to get on the phone (or even jump on a Zoom call) to gather the information, avoid email wherever possible. When speaking to a referee verbally you get more than just words, you get tone, enthusiasm, uncertainty and you can tell when to dig a little deeper if you need to;
  • Contact the right people, and by that I mean the applicants previous direct supervisors or managers. Don't take the applicants word for this, clarify the referees position and reporting relationship at the outset of the reference check;
  • Ask the same standard questions which are relevant to the applicants employability and suitability for the role, but be prepared to go off script if the referee provides insight that leads you towards more specific questions;
  • Ask questions that are important to you, your values and the culture; punctuality, reliability, ability to get along with others, willingness to work back etc;
  • Don't just confirm employment, ask questions that are relevant to your role. This may include their ability to follow instruction, their ability to answer customer queries, their efficiency, their ability to learn new tasks or their aptitude with numbers;
  • Complete at least two reference checks, ideally from two different positions and organisations;
  • Be thorough, if you are getting yes / no answers stick to open ended questions that encourage the referee to elaborate further;
  • Always ask why they left the role, this insight can be invaluable in ensuring the applicants has been honest throughout their application process;
  • Ask what role the referee feels the applicant is most suited to, before telling them details about the role they have applied for. This will tell you what the referee feels the applicants natural skill set is;
  • Focus on recency and relevance speak to the most recent previous managers and reference check the roles that are most suitable to your position;
  • If something from a reference check doesn't add up, investigate further!

At the beginning of the Reference Check it is advisable to put in some form of a disclosure statement, advising the referee of the applicants rights under the privacy act to access the information.

It is because of this privacy issue that there is a common misconception that reference checking is a waste of time as 'referee's only ever say good things'. Those of us who have done enough reference checking know that this is not the case.

In most cases the referee will be honest and give factual, non emotional and specific answers if you frame your questions correctly. Others may simply refuse to do a reference check or to answer specific questions, this is a sure fire red flag that there are issues. In a few cases they may offer to provide an 'off the record' comment which may be very insightful!

So what about written references to put it simply, in many cases they are not worth the paper they are written on. Whilst most applicants are very genuine, there are those who are not, and with the technology available these days, getting hold of a company logo and / or letter head to prepare a reference on is not all that difficult.

And what about if you can't do a verbal reference check? Well my advice is to be very, very careful before hiring. If you are unable to contact a referee have a good look at the reasons why, it is very rare in my experience that an applicant cannot track down a previous manager or supervisor somewhere, so if they are unwilling to hand over the details, there is probably a reason why.


>>> click here to downlonad my free reference check template <<<

Author:Kristy-Lee Billett
About: Kristy-Lee has worked in the field of HR and recruitment since 1999. She holds undergraduate qualifications in Psychology, a Masters in Human Resource Management, is an Professional Member of the Australian Human Resources Institute.
Connect via:LinkedIn

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