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Reference checks: benefits, weaknesses and questions

Benefits of Reference Checks

One of the classic tools for recruitment is the reference check. Applicants are expected to provide three references, which are meant to provide insight into the quality of the applicant’s potential.

While resumes, cover letters, CVs, and even interviews all provide information that can show you whether or not an applicant is qualified for your company, references provide information that all other application information doesn’t, and that makes it a valuable addition to your recruitment practices.

How Reference Checks Help You
References have several benefits that make them an important part of recruitment, including:

• Personal – References are your opportunity to learn more about the individual’s abilities from people that actually know them, not just from a piece of paper and your first impressions. It’s your way of verifying that the person that they say they are is who they actually are, and not just someone amazing at first impressions.

• Preparedness – Reference checks also tell you something about the person. Was the reference clearly prepared for your call? Did they choose good references? Did they have references for you at all? A shocked reference that doesn’t provide a glowing review tells you that the candidate didn’t prepare them, and that says something about them as applicants.

• Values – Who the applicant chooses as a reference also tells you something about the person’s values, and what they consider important. Applicants that choose great references do so because they have thought about their choices, bonded with important people, etc.

Reference checks have their flaws, but they are also extremely beneficial for many positions.

What to Ask
Of course, references are only valuable if you know which questions to ask. You need to make sure that you’re asking everyone you call questions that tell you something genuine about the applicant.

Try your best to stay away from personality questions or clichés, like “hard worker” questions. Most references will say positive things (and in some cases they may be legally forced to say positive things) and you’re not necessarily going to get much information. It’s good for rapport, but not much else.

You’ll want to ask questions that can get real answers to help you make decisions, including:
• What was NAME’s role in PROJECT?
• What program would you say NAME showed the most proficiency?
• What are some examples of ideas that NAME helped create and put into action?

Use the reference to verify information, find out more about the person’s ideas, and see if the reference verifies skills that you need on the job without prompting. Don’t worry too much about whether the reference likes the individual – they almost always will. Worry more about trying to get real information from them in a way that forces them to say what the person truly did, and what they’re actually good at.

References can be very valuable, and there is a reason they have been a common part of the application process. Just make sure you’re using them well, and you can get some real information from them.

Weaknesses of Reference Checks
Reference checks are a genuinely valuable tool for recruitment. They give you personal information about the applicant and they’re a rare opportunity to validate some of the claims on the resume. They tell you something about the preparedness of the candidate, and they give you more information to use to gauge the applicant’s qualifications.

But reference checks also have their flaws, and when used incorrectly they can actually impede your recruitment practices. The following are some of the weaknesses of using reference checks as part of your own recruitment.

• Bad Questions – It starts with bad questions. You should never use a reference for the sake of using a reference. You should always have questions to ask. For example, you can use a reference to verify resume information, or to find out if there are skills the applicant has that could be extremely valuable. Asking the wrong questions means you’re learning very little, while convincing yourself you’re learning more.

• Reference’s Personality – Another problem is that, in a way, you’re actually giving the reference an interview, and if the reference is an unfriendly person, or a shy talker, or someone that just happens to be very busy when you call, their personality may be affecting your judgment in a way that isn’t fair to the applicant, and could have you shy away from a great applicant for the wrong reasons.

• Number of References – Traditionally, most employers ask for three references. But only one reference may actually be necessary. If an applicant
worked closely with one individual more than others, than the other two are superfluous. In addition, the other two simply water down what the important one says. Yes, it’s nice to know that your applicant can get three references, but often what you learn from just one
is enough.

• Lying and Legal Issues – It’s not always possible to ask some of the questions you want to ask, nor can the other person say what they want to say. There are legal issues at play that prevent people from sharing what they want to share. References are also under no obligation to tell the truth, and the reference themselves may not be the person that you think they are when you call.

• Reason for Calling – The traditional belief is that more information is always better. But there are some exceptions. It’s not uncommon for some employers to call references when they’ve already made their decision. At that point, references become far less valuable. Make sure you know why you’re calling, and have given yourself a good “reason,” otherwise the only thing
calling a reference will do is make you less excited for a hire that you’re going to make anyway.

Overall, reference checks do have their value. But they’re only as valuable as the way you use them, and there are many other strategies you’ll also want to use if you hope to be successful.

Contact Recruit Shop today to find out what strategies we use and to have your recruitment practices improved for you.

Click to download the Recruitment eGuide PDF.