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The following is a brief guide to help employers get the most out of reference checks. It obviously has to be adapted to taken into account the relevant legislation in each jurisdiction.

  • Obtain the written permission of the applicant!

There might be certain countries where it is legal to obtain references without the authorisation of the applicant, but these must be rare and it is essential to get written approval before conducting reference checks. We have seen examples where this has not been done and which have led to law suits, candidates losing their jobs and worse. Whilst it is highly tempting to contact someone you might know at the applicant’s company for an “off the record” opinion, this is probably illegal and certainly discourteous.

  • Benefit from the referee’s in-depth knowledge of the candidate

If a hire turns out to be unsuccessful, the direct and indirect cost to the company is enormous. Yet the hiring decision may be based on only a couple of interviews lasting an hour or so each. Obviously, the more people involved in the process the more the risk is divided and, for senior candidates at least, the interview process would hopefully be more thorough. But even if the process lasts ten hours, the knowledge of the candidate will not be as in depth as that of someone who’s worked directly with the applicant for many years and who can be used as a referee.

  • Never rely on written references

I have never seen a written reference stating that the candidate was fired or that they were incompetent at their job. Putting things in writing can be a risky business, especially if the comments are negative. This is why written references should never be relied on. References should always be conducted by phone (or in rare cases face to face) and ideally by the person for whom the candidate will be working. It is tempting to delegate this task to a subaltern but this is to misunderstand totally the importance of the procedure.

  • Make sure the functions of the referees are relevant

References need to be taken up with at least two people (more for senior positions) for whom the applicant worked directly in their most recent positions. It is of little relevance to contact people who worked at the same level, in a different department or so long ago that it is no longer pertinent. Similarly, references from someone’s personal life are of no use except perhaps for entry positions. If a candidate does not want to provide such references, this should be grounds for suspicion and a valid reason needs to be provided. References can obviously be a sensitive issue and this needs to be taken into consideration but any objections need to be tested for reasonableness.

  • How to treat current employers?

The obvious exception to the above would be current employers. Is it not usually reasonable to request a reference from the applicant’s current boss unless there are exceptional circumstances (the company closing, the boss being aware of the applicant’s search etc.). Yet it is usually this position which is of the most importance. We would therefore recommend that the current employer be contacted once the candidate’s departure has been finalised or when they start. Potential conflicts of interest need to be taken into consideration and, as already stated, written agreement is essential. If this final reference check reveals something materially detrimental, there might be grounds for rescinding the offer or revoking the employment contract during the trial period.

  • If at all possible, contact referees who you know directly or indirectly

Just as it is unlikely that referees will make negative comments in writing, they might also be reticent to do so with people they do not know or with whom they do not identify. This is another reason why the reference taking should be performed by the decision-maker and not delegated. If a director is recruiting a direct report and contacts a referee who is a peer at another company, the latter is more likely to give an open and honest reference. If the recruiter and his peer work in the same sector, there is a likelihood that they may know each other at least indirectly and this can only serve to reinforce the validity of the reference. If they know each other directly this is even better and, if there is someone else in the recruiting company who knows the referee directly, this is one exception where it may be useful to delegate the call.

  • Make sure the referee has sufficient time

Given the importance of reference checks, it is obviously essential to speak to the referee when they are prepared and have sufficient time. If possible, it is useful to ask the candidate to let the person know that you will be calling and to send them an email requesting a convenient time to call. I believe that a proper reference check should take about 10-15 minutes and this should be made clear to the referee before or at the beginning of the call. If the referee is in a meeting or pressed for time, agree a mutually convenient time when they are freer.

  • Ask the right questions

The context of the call needs to explained clearly at the beginning of the call so that the referee understands the position and the qualities necessary to fulfil the role. I find it useful to ask for a general opinion about the candidate by way of introduction and subsequently to focus on specific questions that either arise from the referee’s comments or which are of the most relevance to the job. The latter should obviously be prepared beforehand. Two essential questions are: 1) What reservations do you have about the candidate? and 2) What would prevent you from rehiring the candidate if you had a relevant opening? It should be noted that these are open questions likely to bring out more meaningful comments than 1) Do you have any reservations about the candidate? or 2) Would you rehire the person?

  • Remember to check the basics

Whilst the main objective of the call is to validate the professional and personal qualities of the candidate, this is also the opportunity to check that basic information in the CV or provided during the interview are correct. This includes employment dates, compensation, responsibilities and reason for leaving. Any specific achievements mentioned by the applicant should also be validated and, indeed, much of the call should be focused on the added value that the person brought to their job as this is the true measure of their success.

  • Listen to what is unsaid or implied

The real art of a successful reference check is not just to listen to what is said but also to “read between the lines”. How often in our own lives do we find it difficult to say something slightly negative or critical? How much easier it is to push aside the thought or hide behind a white lie. This is even more the case for someone providing a reference. If the recruiter is lucky, there will be a “no comment”, as clear an indication as can be of a negative opinion. But more often than not, there will be a hesitation in the voice or the use of qualified words such as “quite”. If a candidate was “quite satisfactory”, find out what prevented him from being totally satisfactory. If the referee hesitates when you ask what reservations they may have about the person, ask them clearly why they hesitated. Sometimes this persistence can help avoid the huge cost of an unsuccessful recruitment!

Whilst we hope that the above advice can be of assistance in your hiring process, Norman Alex usually takes responsibility for reference checks when we work with clients. Because of our market specialisation, the referees are often people we already know and whom we can rely on for an objective opinion. If you have any questions about reference checks or our other services, please contact us.

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