Reference Checks – why waste your time

Ange Connor

Conducting reference checks as part of the recruitment process is really a waste of time as no one ever puts down a referee who is going to give them a bad wrap. This is one of the most common things I hear from businesses. I see people conduct their interviews, find their ideal candidate and then just want to jump to making an offer of employment as quickly as possible and not worry about doing reference checks. I remember completing my HR studies, and I’d been working in the recruitment industry for a couple of years by this stage, and our lecturer told the class that reference checking were really not worthwhile as no one ever listed a referee that wasn’t going to say good things about them – sorry what?! I was quick to argue this point with him, yet this is the mindset of many people.

The point of conducting reference checks isn’t to be told don’t employ the person, that very rarely happens (but it does sometimes, you’d be surprised). The point of the reference check is to verify how that person performs. It’s to gain context and insight, to verify and probe about the job they have previously fulfilled, the conditions, the structure, the processes that have been in place that has maximised their job performance.

Too often, people see reference checking as just a step in the recruitment process and something that has to be “ticked off” and done before an offer of employment can be made. If done well a reference check should arm you with vital information to firstly support your decision that this person really is the best person for the job. Secondly, it should arm you with information of how to best support this new person in your business – what they need in order to be able to succeed in the role. The art of conducting a valuable and useful reference check is exactly the same as the art of conducting an interview. The quality of the information you gather is determined by the quality of the questions asked and by probing those initial responses for more detail.

I have seen on many occasions an individual who has been extremely successful in their role in a particular industry yet when they have changed jobs and gone to a competitor – into the exact same role in the same industry they have failed miserably. Conducting a detailed and comprehensive reference check would highlight that yes this person has been an excellent employee. What should be questioned is what support structure was in place to help that person succeed, what were the processes and systems they needed around them to achieve success and if that is where there is a major gap in what you can offer in your workplace you need to weigh up if this person will be able to succeed in your environment.

To ensure you are maximising the information you are collecting from a reference check there a few vital steps:

  • Start with the right mindset – if you think it’s just a tick the box step in the process you won’t put in the necessary time and effort
  • Make sure you are talking to the right people who can give you the information you want
  • Be prepared – the questions you ask when interviewing a receptionist versus interviewing a CEO are different, and so should the questions you ask a referee. Tailor the questions you are going to ask to the position, the workplace and the individual and what you what to hone in on. The questions need to be thorough and rigorous, not just would you employ the person again. Use open ended questions and probe.
  • Dedicate the time – this goes for you and for the referee. Make sure the referee can give you the time needed to provide the detail you require. If not schedule a time at a later date rather than rushing through it.
  • Review and reflect – after completing the reference check don’t simply tick the box to show it’s done. Review, analyse the information, how is it comparable to your position and workplace.

Reference checks can be worth their weight in gold if conducted correctly. It’s a step in the recruitment process that should never be skipped. And, if a candidate can’t come up with a single referee of relevance from previous workplaces or their current employer, it’s a red flag for me – don’t fall for that excuse.

About The Author
Ange Connor

Ange is the Founder and Director of Inspire HQ, one of regional Victoria’s leading recruitment, human resource (HR) and careers agencies. Ange is an ‘ideas’ person and a ‘big picture’ thinker. She loves to challenge the status quo – in fact, that’s how Inspire HQ began.

Ange has supported hundreds of businesses across Ballarat and regional Victoria to attract, engage, motivate, develop and retain their greatest assets; their people. Ange’s unyielding passion and invaluable knowledge of the recruitment and HR industry ensures she delivers the best solutions for her clients.

Ange has held various board positions and regularly volunteers her time to share her industry and market knowledge. She was recently a Councillor for the Victoria and Tasmania region of the Recruitment Consulting and Staffing Association (RCSA) of Australia and New Zealand, and she is a current Board Director of the Committee for Ballarat.

For more useful information, follow Ange on LinkedIn.

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