Checking job references


The first rule about checking references of job applicants is to check references; don’t forgo reference checks on the assumption that speaking to a reference will automatically be analogous to speaking to the president of your applicant’s fan club. In reality, even enthusiastic references are often surprisingly candid about an applicant’s limitations.

What’s more, reference checks may be the best way to flag professionals who are skilled at winning over hiring managers but can’t recruit good references because they have poor track records.

A case in point: I know a mean-spirited scientist who had made it to the final cut for a prestigious job but was apparently so bereft of good character references that he stooped to asking a former girlfriend whom he had jilted in a callous way. The former girlfriend understandably denied the scientist’s inappropriate request. And the scientist didn’t land his target job — probably because he couldn’t recruit a sincere character reference.
Tips for checking references of applicants for openings on your staff:

  • Consider requesting from an applicant a reference who has a particular relationship with him. For example, you might ask an applicant for a supervisory position for a reference from someone he previously supervised.
  • Generate questions for references based on an applicant’s background and the technical and soft skills required by the opening.
  • Don’t cold call references. Instead, set up an appointment to speak with each reference before calling him. That way, the reference should have time to prepare thoughtful descriptions of his impressions of the applicant and will likely set aside ample time for your conversation.
  • Take notes during your conversations with references because you may need them later as you compare applicants or explain your hiring decision to your superiors.
  • Start your conversation with each reference by introducing yourself, identifying your call’s purpose and double checking that this is still a convenient time for the reference to talk.
  • Describe to each reference the job opening and its biggest challenges.
  • Ask each reference to verify his relationship with the applicant and facts provided in the applicant’s interview and resume, such as relevant employment or graduation dates, the applicant’s responsibilities/achievements on associated jobs, and — if appropriate — why the applicant left a previous job.
  • Consider explaining why you rate the applicant as a top choice for the opening and asking for feedback on your impressions.
  • Ask references your prepared questions. But also follow-up on each reference’s response to questions, as appropriate. For example, if a reference says something like, “Jane frequently went the extra mile,” ask for examples about how Jane did so.
  • Consider replacing standard, vague questions — such as “What is the applicant’s management style?” with specific questions, such as “How does the applicant reward star producers…resolve conflicts among members of his staff…inspire unmotivated employees…generate camaraderie on his team…deal with problem employees…run meetings for maximize efficiency?”
  • Ask each reference how the applicant could have improved in his previous position and how his reputation compared to those of his peers.
  • Conclude conversations with references by asking, “Should I have any reservations about hiring this applicant?” and “Is there anything else I should know about the applicant?”

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