Reference Checks: Painless & Effective (Part 2)

Question Mark

So you’ve done your prep work, you’ve initiated the call, and you’ve laid the ground work by introducing yourself, your company, and your open position (see yesterday’s post). Now what? How do you direct the conversation and get what you need to form a fuller picture of the candidate? Let’s return to the call…

During the Reference Check (cont’d)

  • Ask the basics. Start and end dates of employment. Starting and ending salary/wages. Reason for leaving. Length of time reference has known candidate and relationship to candidate (supervisor, client, etc.). Date of last contact with candidate. Have the reference confirm the accuracy of the job description the candidate included in their resume.
  • Ask open-ended questions that require specific details. Don’t give the reference an opportunity to get away with a simple “yes or no” answer. Try phrases such as “Tell me about an instance…”, “How often…”, “How did the candidate achieve…”. References should be able to back up positive and negative comments with details.
  • Ask follow-up questions. If something is not clear, ask. If you need more details, ask. If you’ve just heard something surprising or interesting, dig deeper. Determine if most employees behaved the same way in the same situation (did everyone have the same difficulty with that client, or just the candidate?). If they would rehire the candidate, determine why.
  • Ask about the candidate’s preferences and behavior while on the job. Were they willing to try a variety of tasks? Did they perform well on their own, but have trouble with group projects? Did they voluntarily attend trainings and seek out opportunities to enhance their skills? Did they start with a position in HR but were transferred to sales because of their excellent people skills?
  • Go beyond the words. A reference’s word choice can tell you volumes. Do they use generic words such as “great” and “fine”, or specific words such as “inquisitive” and “right-hand man”? But also pay attention to hesitations and tone. How a reference answers (or doesn’t) is just as informative as what they actually say.

After the Conversation

  • Compare 2-4 references for each candidate. Did they give consistent responses? Did 3 of the 4 refuse to do more than confirm former employment? Were their responses consistent with the candidate’s resume? Did you get a similar sense of the candidate during your interview?
  • Compare with other candidates. Did you learn something that elevated this candidate above the others? Do you now feel this candidate will be a better fit for your organization, even if they require a little more training?
  • Think long-term. Will this candidate fit not just your current needs, but your needs for future projects and growth? Is this candidate likely to remain in the position for more than a few months? Will additional training make them an even more valuable asset?

It’s crucial to make the right hire the first time. Learning about candidates from those who have actually worked with them will provide you with valuable insight you just can’t get from a resume or application alone. Investing your time in reference checks upfront will save you time and money down the road, helping you avoid turnover and increasing the likelihood your new hire will find satisfaction in the position.

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About Melissa Kolinsky

Having recently relocated from Miami, Melissa serves as Project Manager here at TestUP. She lends her talents to everything from test development to website copy, marketing, PR, and product development.

In the past, she has enjoyed stints as a teacher and tutor, family therapist, freelance editor, legal assistant, standardized test reviewer, waitress, and retail associate (ok, maybe it’s stretching the truth a little to say she “enjoyed” these last two). She holds a B.A. in English and an M.S. in Family Therapy.

In her free time, Melissa can be found volunteering at various events around Boston, spending time with family in Providence, RI, voraciously reading British murder mysteries and turn-of-the-century histories, baking tons of yummy muffins and cookies (if she does say so herself!), and paddling the occasional kayak.

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