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Are reference checks still relevant?
Posted: 31 Aug | Author: Heather Wilson

Almost every recruitment process includes reference checks as a key step towards determining candidate suitability, but does that mean they’re still relevant? Well, that depends.


On the one hand reference checks can be a great way to further explore the way in which a prospective employee works, leads and takes initiative. They can also on rare occasions reveal highly undesirable attributes that can save you from employing the wrong person. But rarely this is the case, because it’s unlikely that prospective candidates are going to nominate a referee from a job from which they were dismissed or under-performed.

Which is why when it comes to unearthing poor performers or undesirable employees, reference checks should be taken with a grain of salt.

If you want more than salt, it’s up to you to use the reference check process to obtain meaningful information. Nine times out of ten reference check forms consist of the same questions asked in every process, many of which are driven by tick and flick responses that produce superficial and useless responses.


How can you get around this? Instead of asking a long list of standard questions, make your checks targeted.


Quality over quantity. Rather than asking the stock standard questions, focus on the areas that matter and use the reference check to unearth any information around specific areas of concern from the interview. This will not only assist your decision making at the final stage of the process, but also put your referee on the spot and most likely force them to generate genuine responses. You don’t have to ask every referee the same twenty questions for the sake of it. If there’s something you want to know, ask. If not, don’t.


Don’t ask closed or leading questions. I know this is reference check 101, but I can almost guarantee you that the Recruiter or Administrator doing reference checks is looking to charge through it as quickly as possible so that they can tick another step off the process. And the person on the other end of the phone is probably just as bored and eager to get off the phone as they are. If you’re going to blaze through a reference check purely to tick a box, you may as well not bother doing one.  

Ask questions that get the referee thinking and force them to provide quality answers. They might even find the process less mind numbing if you do.


Do the check yourself. I know no one enjoys doing reference checks, but the reality is that asking a recruitment support person to do your checks isn’t going to be nearly as effective as doing them yourself. You’ve met the person, you know where they fell short at interview, and you know the requirements of the position. Instead of seeing reference checks as a burden, see where you can use them to your advantage.


Make sure it’s relevant. Finally, make sure the referee provided is relevant. A referee from a job several years ago is more likely to be a go-to referee for the candidate, and one that they know will give a positive reference to push them over the line. It’s also common for some candidates to supply fake referees, using mates or colleagues in place of legitimate supervisors or managers. Push for the most recent leader who can speak to their most current and relevant experience. If your candidate is reluctant to have you speak to them, that could be an alarm bell.


In short, no one likes reference checks. But if utilised well they can be an asset. If not, don’t bother. 

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