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How to Conduct Effective Reference Checks

Too many companies cut corners, or don’t really do reference checks the right way. Here are some tips on how to conduct effective reference checks and provide value to the company’s hiring process.


Reach out

One of the most unfortunate situations is where companies ask for references, but never follow up. The philosophy of some human resource departments is that applicants will do their own work to find good references, and that just seeing them on a resume or CV is enough to provide some level of satisfaction. But when you dig into this idea, it doesn’t really work. Applicants can put anything down on a reference check. Just because you see a name and telephone number, even if there is a company name or job title, that’s not really providing the business with anything of value.

Know what to avoid

Another big problem that a lot of companies have is that their departments don’t understand what they are allowed to ask applicants. This varies according to several factors, and human resources departments should always discuss these processes with their in-house legal counsel. For example, HR people are allowed to ask in very technical ways about when an employee worked somewhere, why they left, whether the company would rehire them if given the chance, and whether they pose a threat to the community. But without detailed counsel, HR reps may not know how close they can get to these questions, and so they may avoid them entirely — and be missing out on just the kinds of information that they want and need.

Ask for details

Aside from those thorny legal questions about what’s off-limits, a lot of human resources people also just don’t do the right kinds of digging. For example, it makes sense to talk to people with direct administrative experience who are relevant to the field, and ask them specific open questions that will get them to talk more about their working relationship with a job applicant. Remember, the end goal here is to get business intelligence — checking references is, in a way, almost like espionage or detective work — you’re trying to build a fuller picture of the situation that would otherwise be entirely unknown. So the more detail you can collect, the better off you’ll be.

Think about these basic philosophies when contacting references and focus on collecting ‘business intelligence’ for job candidates

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