Is Reference Checking Worth It?

Shawnee Love   •   March 29, 2019

I am a firm believer that reference checking is an important selection tool when hiring.  If done well, the information gathered in this process will:

  • Validate (or disprove) what the candidate told you,
  • Identify the environment and culture which the person will thrive (or fail) in, and
  • Provide intelligence into how to best manage, motivate, and retain the individual.

Unfortunately, I have observed that most reference checking efforts are cursory at best and miss the wealth of information they can offer.

If you want your reference checking to be a valuable selection tool, then:

  1. Establish and follow referee criteria. E.g., if you ask for 3 references which is pretty standard, then ensure at least 2 are previous supervisors. The more senior the role, the more referee viewpoints you want to obtain so include direct reports, stakeholders, board members, previous bosses, etc.  Outside of new immigrants and new to the workforce candidates, only very rarely have I had a good candidate truly not have a boss they could get a reference from.
  2. Build a reference questionnaire which addresses the basics (i.e., ethics, dependability, work habits, people skills, communication skills, organizational skills) but also drills into what is important for your organization as it relates to culture fit, personality type, fit with manager and team, job relevant skills, accomplishments, etc. For suggestions on good questions, check out our blog on reference questions.
  3. Don’t be afraid to drill down into answers with referees. If you get a one-word answer, ask for examples.  It is good practice to share information about your job and company with the referee, so the referee has context when answering your questions.
  4. Be willing to provide accurate and complete answers to reference checks yourself. I recently called a firm who indicated they have a policy of no references for ex-employees. However, they admitted they do reference checks when hiring for their firm. While I understand the reasons, I am not a fan of the no-reference policy because I believe it is short sighted HR and unfair to employees. Moreover, you have to give if you want to receive.
  5. Ensure you do references each and every time you hire a new employee.  If they aren’t consistently part of the process, it’s an easy step to forget.

In conjunction with other screening steps (e.g., multiple interviews, pre-employment testing, verification of education, social media review, etc.) good reference checking can bring invaluable perspective to your hiring process.