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Conducting Effective Reference Checks

Conducting reference checks can be one of the most important steps in the selection process. Since past performance is often the best indicator of future performance, references allow you to talk to past supervisors in order to determine if the applicant being considered is suited for the role.

Reference checking allows you to ensure that you are finding the most qualified person who is also a good match for the position. By conducting reference checks, you can avoid costs associated with failed probation periods and poor performance, which can impact your guests or clients and damage your image or reputation.

Why perform reference checks?

These checks help you confirm information on the candidate's application form and resumes. You will also gain greater insights into the candidate's skills, knowledge and abilities from someone who has actually observed the candidate perform.  

It is important that during the interview process, you obtain consent from the applicant to contact their references and ask employment-related questions. A common mistake managers often make is asking candidates to choose their references.  Instead, you should tell the candidates that you wish to speak to the people who actually supervised them.  It is good practice to speak to two or three work-related references. If the candidates’ current employers do not know they are seeking work elsewhere, then go to the previous employers.

Before making the calls, it is good practice to make a list of questions so that you are asking the same set of questions, giving you a consistent frame on which to base your decisions. All questions should be job-related and legal. You cannot ask questions during a reference check that you are prohibited from asking during an interview.

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How to conduct reference checks

  • Identify yourself, your title, organization name and tell them you are calling about a  reference for a candidate you are considering
  • Ask if now is a good time to talk or whether they would rather schedule a call at a later time
  • Make sure they understand that you have the consent from the applicant and that all responses will remain confidential
  • It is important to give a brief description of the role you are considering the applicant for, so that they can comment in context
  • Give them time to answer your questions. Let them respond, and do not cut them off or put words in their mouth

While it is important to tailor reference check questions to your organization, the job and the applicant being considered, the following are some common examples of questions that can be asked:

  1. In what capacity were you associated with the applicant, and since what date?
  2. In what capacity was the applicant employed, and what were their job responsibilities and salary?
  3. Was the applicant successful in fulfilling his or her duties?
  4. What was it like to supervise the applicant?
  5. Was the applicant a valuable member of the team?
  6. What unique skill did the candidate bring to your organization?
  7. What were their strengths?
  8. What were their weaknesses or areas that needed improvement?
  9. How would they describe this applicant's absenteeism record in relation to other employees?
  10. Did you ever find it necessary to reprimand or discipline this person?  If so, what were the circumstances?
  11. Considering the job being applied for, do you think the applicant is suitable?
  12. Why did they leave your employment?
  13. Would you rehire the candidate; why or why not?
  14. Is there anything else you would like to add?

This simple list of questions helps narrow down your list of top candidates in order to select the best person for the job, your organizations, your clients and your bottom line.

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