Employee References

Are employee references still valuable today? Litigation worries and questions around the veracity of reference statements have cast a shadow over the practice of giving and taking references. Despite the caution, references remain an important and necessary part of the recruiting process. They can give great insight about a candidate and can confirm your hunches, whether positive or negative.

This article guides you through the process from the type of references you need and the questions to ask.

To know the future
is to understand the past.

It’s advisable to warn potential candidates early on in the process that you´ll be asking for references if they are short listed for final stage interviews. This gives the candidate advance notice to organize their references and ensures a seamless process.

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

Offering references—is reluctance a red flag?

The ease or level of comfort with which references are offered often indicates how candidates feel about themselves and what others might say about them. The 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.

It’s important to note that not all interactions are positive and that’s life. It’s a very rare person who’ll completely destroy an individual’s opportunity, but sometimes candidates are over anxious and fear the worst. If you do encounter someone who seems reluctant to provide a particular reference, just explain that you’ll take all information within a larger context.

That said, it’s also important to listen with a balanced ear as reluctance or personality clashes might be a signal to carefully scrutinize tenure at a company or the person’s reason for leaving. If you really like the individual and one reference doesn’t add up, take more references to see if a consistent message or theme emerges. If so, what is it? Is this a limitation for you? Look at the individual, the role they’ll play, your management style and weigh everything out. Who are the ideal references and how far back to you go?

A reference from the supervisor the person last reported to is always the best bet. Avoid being fobbed off to indirect references such as peers or managers, where there was no reporting relationship. It’s the direct relationship that counts.

Now getting a direct supervisor isn’t always practical especially if the candidate is still working for the company and requires confidentiality. In that case, if the candidate has been at one company for a fair amount of time (i.e., 5+ years), there may be others that they have reported to in the past. If that’s not the case, make your offer subject to references and once the candidate has resigned, do the reference with the current supervisor with the permission of the candidate.

If the candidate has been at a few companies in the last five years, make sure you reference all their direct supervisors.

Generally, recent references are the best but a reference list can be made up of people from the last five to seven years. If the candidate produces references from another era (i.e., 10 – 15 years ago), this should raise a red flag.

Peer references and character references can be viable, but should never replace the supervisory references. They are useful for entry level candidates, for the candidate who can genuinely only produce one or two supervisory references or where someone is currently employed and for confidentiality reasons, you´re unable to speak to their current supervisor.

Asking 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, ask where they are working now and confirm 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. It’s best to get a current work number for the reference and if they are working somewhere else, it’s worth calling the switchboard of the company where both parties previously worked to check that indeed the reference is genuine and did at one time 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 and what were their relationship strengths and weaknesses?
  • > Ask for examples of how they handled conflict.
  • > What was their reason for leaving?
  • > Would you rehire?
  • > And, is there anything that you have personally missed in taking this reference 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 reference.

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.

Restricted mobility — when you 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.

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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.

Background checking firms

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 quite prevalent 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. The spectrum varies.

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.