The Lost Art of Reference Checking

by The Red Recruiter on November 2, 2011

Reference CheckingA recruiter who used to work for me a few years back listed me as a reference recently, and today I received the call.

The individual that called me works for a very large staffing firm – the kind that has processes and procedures (i.e. boxes to check off).

Anyway… the reference call was terrible.

The questions were all closed ended.

“Did so-and-so work for you back in 2005?”

“Were they punctual?”

“Did they perform well?”

“Would you hire them again?”

Lame, but it got me thinking.

Why don’t recruiters spend more time on this detail?  When did reference checking go from being a vital part of the process to something recruiters dread… and often times avoid altogether?

I don’t know the history here, but it seems like a big fail and we should change it.

Let’s consider why we do reference checks.

Many think the reference check is in place to rule out candidates, but why don’t we value the opportunity to get to know our candidates better from another perspective?  You can bet that most references will speak positively of the candidate in question – almost a sure thing.  However, we can leverage references to give us insight into how the candidate will be most successful.

“What do you think would help make the candidate most successful for this role?”

“How can you tell if the candidate is engaged with their work?”

“What signs should we look for to indicate the candidate needs more attention?”

“What kind of manager would the candidate be most successful under?”

“What’s the best advice you could give the candidate’s future manager?”

Imagine the golden insight you could start getting from this approach?  These questions wouldn’t necessarily rule the candidate out, but they would surely help ensure that retention starts in the recruiting process.

What kind of added value could you provide your hiring managers by giving them some key insights from people who care about the candidate?  Good stuff!

What else could we do with reference checks

If you are a recruiter that focuses on a specialized skill set, you may be missing one of your largest sources for leads – both candidates and future clients.

How many references could turn into clients?  Well, if they were past managers of the candidates you are courting, they are still likely to be managers.  Not a bad client lead.

If the reference worked with your candidate, there is a high likelihood that they share a skill set.  Not a bad way to gather candidate leads – oh yeah… passive candidate leads (isn’t that what most companies are after?).

So, I’ll step off my soapbox now, but just remember – there is much more to reference checking than simply checking off the boxes.  Leverage them and develop a whole new realm of influence.

Ironically, the reference I was providing was for a recruiter who worked on a team of mine that built an entire branch office around this strategy.  Further, our SVP at the time was the one who gave us this insight – he learned the trade from the same company that I received the reference call from today.  Oh, irony.

Questions to ponder…

Where do reference checks fit into your process?

Are they given the attention they deserve?

How can you leverage them for pipeline or lead development?

How does a poor reference check reflect on your business and/or process?

Any best practices you’d like to share?

  • BK

    I think reference checks have 2 downfalls: 1) The candidate is picking that reference. 2) Many companies have policies against a personal reference and can only confirm they actually worked there. :(

  • Pingback: Reference checking: You’re doing it wrong »

  • StayBank

    Needs more cowbell!

  • MK

    Know everything about HR including industry best practices,
    policies, general HR information and also interact with HR professionals
    worldwide through SHRM India!

    Join us now!

    Follow us on Twitter :

    Connect with us on Linkedin :

  • Francois Guay

    So true. Reference checks are a great opportunity to truly find out how your candidate will fit in with the culture of the company you are recruiting for. Make sure you really focus here as poor culture fit is the major reason people do not end up working out. 

  • Foo

    “How many references could turn into clients?  Well, if they were past managers of the candidates you are courting, they are still likely to be managers.  Not a bad client lead.” – This is why candidates don’t give references to recruiters.

  • Luke

    I work at (I’m not in the recruitment department) and I’ve noticed that many agencies now obtain references via email. I’m not sure what you think? at least then you can be more descriptive.

  • PointofNoReturn

    Hi, Well if you are out in the world and come from the old school reference checking methods then this might apply. If you are of the new era of reference checking then some things to ponder also…
    1) I have not found a single CIO, Director or Senior staff that wants a recruiter calling them for a reference. We all know what LinkedIn is!
    2) There are laws around what questions you can ask for a reason.. Its called defamation of character..
    3) There is also what is called the irritation of recruiters that think that they can turn a reference into a client. Once you get past the low level staff most Director, C-suite and up know how to dial the phone if they are going to look for a new position.
    4) References are for a reason. Not for asking if they are looking for a position. Recruiters have pushed way past the point of what is considered acceptable questions to what is your current salary and do you have a W-2 to prove it…

Previous post:

Next post: