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The Importance of Checking References

Over the course of the hiring process, some organizations tend to overlook the importance of checking references of applicants. Having an effective process for checking references may accomplish one of a two things; it may reassure the hiring manager of the positive things that he or she already knows about the applicant, or it may uncover things about a potential applicant that the hiring manager did not know and that may prove to be unfavorable for the potential candidate and the organization. Despite the fact that many organizations do not check references, it is one of the most important parts of an effective hiring process. Specific techniques must be utilized while checking references to separate those with good employment records from those who have backgrounds that may not be as attractive. Failing to check references puts the organization at a significant disadvantage and does not give the attention to the applicant that they may deserve.

The unease about potential legal problems that may result from providing a candid reference for a past employee is very real and may be the reason some employers hesitate to provide references. An employer’s failure to provide a reference at all may be assumed by other employers to be a bad reference. However, here are some best practices that may help put organizations and their hiring managers at ease when they are asked to check references of applicants.

The first tip for organizations and their hiring managers is to understand the legality of checking references. It is a best practice to receive an applicant’s written approval to check their references, and going one step further, to also check additional references beyond those that the applicant provides. When conducting reference checks, hiring managers must understand that the same discrimination laws apply to reference checks, as apply to interviewing.

For example, during an interview or when conducting a reference check, a hiring manager may not inquire and/or discriminate against an applicant with regards to their race, color, religion, sex (pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 and over), disability, genetic information as referenced in the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), military service veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by federal, state and local laws. In addition, hiring managers should make it a practice to ensure that the information that they are gathering from the applicant’s references is kept confidential, unless it is obtained from a manager within the organization and is on a “need to know” basis.

There are a few ways that a hiring manager may go about obtaining references. First, there is the traditional route where the applicant provides written reference letters. Hiring managers should take these reference into consideration, however, they should not rely solely on what is written. Many of these written recommendations are prepared at the time of a termination. This may ultimately result in creating a reference that may be inflated due to the nature of the situation. Another way to check references include written letters or emails provided by the hiring manager to the past employer. Oftentimes, these requests are overlooked or thrown in the trash, either physically or electronically. The most effective method to use when checking references is the telephone. This gives the hiring manager the opportunity to ask questions on the fly based upon a response to a primary question. Utilizing the telephone also allows hiring managers the opportunity to detect any sort of enthusiasm, or lack thereof, in the tone of the provider’s voice with regards to the applicant.

The reader probably has noted that the author is continually making a reference to the hiring manager.  Thus, another tip is to ensure that the direct hiring manager is the person who is conducting the reference checks. In other words, this is a job that should not be delegated, unless it is to a trained HR professional who understand the job. While others may be thorough in their reference checking abilities, only the direct hiring manager will have the insight and mindset to ask the right questions to obtain a complete and candid reference.

Hiring managers should start with basic questions such as dates of employment, what type of work the applicant completed in the course of their previous job, their relationship to the applicant, etc. These questions may seem trivial; however, they are a great first set of questions that are not opinion-based for the hiring manager to assess the attitude of the person they are speaking with and their willingness to share information. From these questions, hiring managers should ask a list of previously compiled job-related questions. Hiring managers should not be afraid to ask probing questions. These probing questions should require the individual to describe certain aspects of the former employee’s job to ensure that they were, in fact, performing the specific essential duties and responsibilities as stated on their resume and in their interview. These questions may consist of asking the individual about any shortcomings the applicant may have, how they deal with an urgent task, or how many times they were absent, came in late, or left early. Utilizing probing questions that relate to the applicant’s performance and work habits in their previous job, are appropriate.

Typically hiring managers speak with individuals who have been listed as references who will want to deny the request to provide a reference. This may be due to the increased number of lawsuits based around employers providing references. If a hiring manager is faced with this issue, they should explain to the individual providing the reference that they want to be fair with the applicant and that if they were to hire that person and they didn’t mesh with the culture of the organization, or more importantly, couldn’t do the job correctly, they would have to let them go, ultimately damaging their reputation. Hiring managers may also run into the individual who will want to tailor their answer by avoiding certain questions by changing the subject or conversation to something they are comfortable talking about. When a hiring manager is faced with this issue, it is important that they either ask for clarification, or revisit the question later during the telephone conversation.

Hiring managers should also be creative in searching for contacts outside of those that the applicant lists on their application or resume. Some of these contacts may include: the employee’s former immediate supervisor, or professionals from the Human Resources Department at a previous employer. From these contacts, hiring managers may be able to obtain a list of additional references who will better be able to either recommend the applicant or provide additional information that may prevent the applicant from being hired.

Finally, once a hiring manager has completed the gathering of the reference check information, they will want to evaluate all of the references. It is important that hiring managers be objective in their considerations about what is important in their findings. It is important that they focus on what will make the applicant successful in the job rather than things such as longevity or promotions in past jobs.

In summary, reference checks are a great tool for any organization to ensure that the applicants that they are considering for hire are top-notch and will be able to accomplish the essential duties and responsibilities that their job demands. While checking references may be deemed a cumbersome and pointless task, it may very well be the best decision hiring managers make in the hiring process. Checking references and using the tips mentioned above may result in fewer bad hires, which in turn saves hiring managers a significant amount of time and ultimately adds money to the bottom line of the organization.

For additional information on checking references, please contact us at www.newfocushr.com.

Written by: Patrick McKenna, SHRM-CP

HR Consultant





New Focus HR is a human resources consulting and training company that services all organizations. Our expert team collaborates with businesses to attract, motivate, retrain and retain their biggest assets, employees. While engaged with an organization, our focus is to find solutions that improve the company’s internal HR-related practices while increasing results at the same time! Our focus. Your results.