6 Tips for Reference Checking

There has been a lot of talk lately about honesty. One can barely go out in public without hearing something about truth or lack thereof. This morning, two people in front of me at the coffee shop were talking about it. I heard one of them say,

“you know darn well he’s hiding something.”

I immediately thought I knew who they were talking about until I heard the other person mention they would need to start recruiting again. It was then I realized I was overhearing a conversation about reference checks, and I felt sorry for the person who was missing out on the job opportunity.

You see, there are lots of reasons why reference checks are difficult to get; some of them are valid and some are not.

  • Some employers prohibit sharing.
    Somewhere, in the deep dark belly of the organization is a Human Resources practitioner (and perhaps one too many attorneys) who is prohibiting the act of sharing information. Lord knows why…maybe a rogue supervisor spread vicious lies about an ex-employee and now all supervisors are gagged. Perhaps corporate counsel believes the risk of defamation is “scarier” than the risk of negligent hiring. Or maybe the HR Director went to some crazy conference and learned that a “don’t tell” policy was popular and, since everyone wants to be popular, he/she hopped on that bandwagon. Regardless of the reason, it could be that the employer prohibits sharing.
  • Supervisors may be ignorant.
    Mind you, I’m sure they are geniuses in their craft but it is likely they don’t make a habit of keeping abreast of Human Resources’ rules and protocols. They are likely unsure what they can share, what they should share, etc. so when they are called, they simply decline to offer anything.
  • The candidate may be “to blame” but not in the way you think.
    The candidate may have failed to contact/prepare the reference about the ongoing job search so the reference is caught off guard. Maybe the candidate didn’t provide a written release to the ex-employer, which may be needed before a supervisor can share. It’s probable the candidate didn’t realize there was a crazy “don’t tell” policy floating around and, more than likely, doesn’t know how to creatively work around that sort of thing.

I suppose it’s also possible the candidate is a bad egg but, as the above suggests, there are other valid reasons to explain why information wasn’t shared.

Therefore, I boldly suggested to the gentleman at the coffee shop to 1) try some Biscotti as it was divine, and 2) try some of the tactics below before he rejected his top candidate.

  • Put some ownership on the candidate.
    Communicate that you cannot/will not consider an offer without gaining previous employment information. Offer ideas on how he/she can arrange for relevant, factual information to be shared.
  • Be respectful of the previous employer’s time.
    Arrange a time to call the reference instead of simply picking up the phone when it’s convenient for you. Some people like sending questions via email. It’s been my experience that this helps the reference be better prepared for your phone call.
  • Be a good interviewer.
    Start with offering your thanks for the reference’s time. Then share that the candidate suggested the reference would be a good source of information. Next, share a bit about the job (what the responsibilities are, what an ideal candidate would be, etc.). Continue with what you learned about the candidate and what information you need validated. If you’re lucky, this will ultimately lead to additional candid and helpful information.
  • Be persistent without being annoying.
    Give some gentle reminders, solicit some empathy, etc. to make it clear to the candidate or the reference that you cannot pursue an employment offer until you do your “due diligence” in gathering information.
  • Stop the madness!
    If you work for an employer that prohibits factual information sharing, do something about it!  How hypocritical is it of you to seek information but yet refuse to give information?
  • Do some research.
    We are all concerned about negligent hiring/negligent retention legislation – that’s why we need to get employment references. In addition, many states have laws protecting individuals who, in good faith, disclose information about the job performance of an employee or former employee to a prospective employer. They are typically called “immunity from good faith disclosure” laws.

In the end, it all comes down to this. A good hire is critical to our organization’s success and sustainability. That being said, investing in the process of finding, screening and selecting a good candidate is important. It was clear the gentleman I met this morning spent a good deal of time, money and other resources finding the candidate he ultimately wanted for the job, yet he nearly threw his investment away simply because of a hiccup in the reference checking process.

A little patience and persistence goes a long way in ensuring we get a good return on that investment.



About the Author

Heather Kinzie, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, GPHR, serves as the Chief Operating Officer for The Strive Group. With more than 20 years of organizational and workforce performance experience, Kinzie offers consulting, coaching, content development and ltraining to clients. She oversees a team of experts who utilize a broad, systematic approach to problem solving and consultation. Recognizing the critical importance of leadership, communication and effective collaboration among teams, Kinzie is committed to helping clients improve communication, engagement and organizational performance.

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