Everything You Need to Know About: Employee References

Are employee references still valuable? Short answer: Yes.

Concerns about litigation and questions around the veracity of reference statements have cast doubt on whether giving and taking references is worthwhile. However, despite the hesitations, references remain an important and necessary part of the recruiting process. They can give great insight into a candidate and may confirm your hunches – whether positive or negative.

Here’s our rundown on everything you need to know about collecting employee references during your hiring process:

Inform Candidates Early

During the initial stages of your conversation, let potential candidates know you’ll be asking for references if they are short listed for final-stage interviews. Ideally, they’ll have plenty of advance notice to organize their references and ensure a seamless process.

As part of your interviewing methodology, you may note some behaviors or answers that need additional insight from the candidate’s references. Make sure you follow up when connecting with those individuals.

Is it a red flag if a candidate is reluctant to provide references?

A candidate who’s reluctant to produce references is not necessarily hiding anything; it might be there was a personality clash or lack of communication between the candidate and their last direct supervisor.

Obviously, not all interactions are positive. (That’s life!) It’s a very rare (often angry) person who’ll go out of their way to completely destroy an individual’s opportunity, but sometimes candidates are overly anxious and fearful of the worst-case scenario.

If you do encounter someone who seems reluctant to provide a particular reference, explain that you’ll take all the information into account within a larger context. 

That said, it’s also important to listen with a balanced ear as reluctance or personality clases might be a signal to take a closer look at their tenure at a company or reasons for leaving. If you like the individual and find one reference doesn’t like up with your perceptions, connect with a couple others to see if a consistent theme emerges. Evaluate whether this is a limitation for you, the role and the company, or whether it’s something that can be easily moved past.

Who are the ideal references? How far back should you go?

Receiving a reference from the supervisor the person last reported to is always the best bet. As much as possible, avoid indirect references (e.g., peers or managers where there was no reporting relationship). It’s the direct relationship that counts.

Getting a reference from a direct supervisor isn’t alway feasible, especially if the candidate is still working for the company and requires confidentiality. In that case, if a candidate has been at one company for a fair amount of time (e.g., 5+ years), there may be others they have reported to in the past. If that’s not the case, make the offer subject to references. Once the candidate has resigned, contact their current supervisor with the candidate’s permission.

Recent references are best. A reference list can be made up of people from five to seven years ago. If a candidate produces references from another era (e.g., 10+ years ago), this should raise a red flag.

Peer or character references can be helpful, but should never be given equal weight to supervisory references. They’re useful for entry-level candidates or someone who can genuinely only provide 1-2 supervisory references.

Ask the Right Questions

A thorough reference check should take between 30 and 40 minutes. Let the person know how much time you’ll need and determine if it’s a good time to call. If the reference is not currently working at the same company as the candidate, confirm where they are working now, their current title and when they left their former company.

While it’s very unusual for someone to provide fake references, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. To verify details, it’s worth calling the switchboard of the company where both parties previously worked to check that the reference is genuine and they did work there in the capacity stated. If possible, confirm when they left.

If the candidate you are currently trying to hire is still at the same company, you need to respect confidentiality and be very discrete and careful in how you confirm that information. It’s best to be very casual and informal. If both parties are at the same company, you can always call the switchboard at different times or days to ask for an individual’s title.

Information you want to confirm:

  • + Name of reference
  • + Relationship to candidate
  • + Time worked together and length of reporting relationship
  • + Dates of employment
  • + Salary
  • + What were the candidate’s daily responsibilities?
  • + How did they perform in that role?
  • + Did they work on any special projects?
  • + What was the most complex piece of work they did and how did they achieve their results?
  • + Technically, what are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • + How did they manage their relationships with peers, subordinates and bosses? What were their relationship strengths and weaknesses?
  • + Ask for examples of how they handled conflict.
  • + What was their reason for leaving?
  • + Would you rehire them?
  • + Is there anything that would be important to know with respect to hiring this candidate?

It’s important to know that references typically only volunteer information if they are asked a specific question. If you don’t ask the right questions, you may not get the right answers. The last question on this list above is a very important “catch all” question. You may be surprised at what information it elicits right at the end of a conversation.

Know that it is illegal to ask any questions that could be construed as discriminating. Avoid asking questions about marital status, religion, gender, age, nationality etc.

What if it’s company policy that they can only confirm dates of employment?

If a candidate tells you the company policy is they only give dates of employment and not references, you still need to call the company to verify the policy and confirm the start date, end date, title, and anything else you can.

Ask the candidate if anyone is prepared to give them an “off the record” reference. If they’ve been with the company for a few years, there might be a former boss who’ll be willing to act as a reference. It might be more difficult if the candidate has only been there a short time. In that case, look at the big picture. If the candidate can produce plenty of other relevant references, you’re likely in good shape. If, on the other hand, their reference list is sparse and sketchy that may warrant further thought.

Consider Whether It’s Helpful to Outsource Reference Checks

If you do not have a company policy on reference checking, it’s always a good idea to speak to your corporate lawyer to get some insights into current legislation. Because this area is subject to changing legislation and new case law, it’s best to be current.

If you do plan to outsource your referencing, it’s a good idea to audit the service selected. While there are very professional companies out there offering this valued service, there are unfortunately some that do not do a quality job.

You’ll learn a lot if you are called to provide a reference. The services that only require about five minutes of your time or skim over important questions and do not proactively listen to your answers and dig further where appropriate, may not be serving your needs. Proceed with caution and good luck with your hiring.


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