How to Conduct an Effective Reference Check

When a candidate hands you a list of references, your first thought might be to call one or two of them to confirm and check some of the basic facts on the resume in front of you. Not a bad idea. It is definitely important to know in depth the character and abilities of the candidate and his professional past.

But that’s not really what these calls are about. Reference checks can, and should, take you much deeper into a candidate’s psyche, talents, and approach to work.

In fact, just a few questions and attention can tell you much you need to know, getting more familiar with a candidate’s professional experience and the impression he/she has given others. Former managers make the most useful references, as they are generally more open to discussing a candidate’s strengths and weak spots, but even former colleagues or teachers can give you valuable insights.

The real question isn’t whether or not reference checks are worth your time, but rather how to prepare to make the most out of them. Before you do anything, don’t forget to schedule the call with the reference! It’s important they have time to prepare mentally so they can go into depth with you as necessary and they should also be available for the call so they can answer your questions calmly. Here are some tips to put the thought process in motion and get you on the right path to a successful reference check:

1. Figure out what you hope to learn – What do you hope to accomplish with this conversation? What knowledge are you hoping to gain about a candidate? Figuring this out requires that you think about things from a couple of different angles.

2. Think about the position. What qualities and characteristics are you hoping to find to fill the position? If it is unclear to you if the candidate possesses these qualities, a reference check is the time to get clear.

3. Think about the candidate, professionally and personally. Reference checks should only be made after at least one in-person interview with a candidate. During recommendation interviews, it’s important to ask about topics that came up in your interview with the candidate that you would like to find out more about or clarify further. Also Consider where you still feel like there are gaps in the candidate’s story, character and development so you can decide if he/she truly fits the company culture and the position.

4. Think about the reference. What kind of person are you about to get on the phone with? What kind of company are they a part of and what was their relationship to the candidate? What kind of information about the candidate can you expect or hope to learn from this person?

5. Write down a list of questions beforehand – Never go into a cold phone call. While you want to make sure the conversation is still personable and flowing, writing down the questions you want to cover will help you remember them in the course of the conversation and give you reference material to fall back on if you feel stuck. This will also give you the opportunity to think about how you want to word each question to inspire the most informative, open, and honest answer.

6. Think about how you will connect to references on a personal level – You definitely want to keep things professional, but you also want to put the person on the other side of the phone at ease, so they feel free to open up and be honest. Just a couple of quick comments about a shared experience or interest can go a long way.

If you’re struggling to come up with good questions for references, here are a few general ones that should point you in the right direction:

  • How would you describe the candidate as a professional?
  • What do you feel are the candidate’s strengths?
  • How does the candidate perform working in a group?
  • What tips would you give to the candidate’s future manager/s?
  • What professional problems and challenges did the candidate face?
  • How would you rate the candidate professionally in relation to other people who worked for you (you can ask him to rate him from 1-10 in relation to others on the team)?

Ask open-ended questions and let the references talk as much as they would like. Oftentimes they will unwittingly or instinctually reveal something of interest once they are in a role. Don’t forget to be attentive and offer them the opportunity to add whatever they would like before ending the conversation. Most importantly, prepare, prepare, and prepare some more. All reference checks have their benefits, but making the most of this opportunity requires thought and effort.


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