Some executives think that checking references is impossible. “No one will answer honestly” or “All I get is those automated systems” are common complaints. Many admit to not even trying to check references because they assume it will be useless and time wasted.

Yet, references can add significantly to your understanding of whether a candidate will succeed in your organization. And doing reference checks may protect you from problems, turnover, and legal risks.

Sure, you may need to call some people at home if they are unwilling to talk at work. Or you may want to stress that you want to hire the person but need to complete reference checks to do so to get more information.

How do effective reference checks happen?

Tip 1. One of the smartest things you can do is create a reference check format to help guide the conversation. This should include a bit about your culture and vision as well as the most critical elements of the job and of what it takes to succeed in your world.  Basic format:

  • Who you are and why you are calling.
  • Say you appreciate their time and that the applicant gave them as a reference.
  • Start with the easy questions of how the person knows the applicant and for how long.
  • Check where they worked together and what each did.
  • Talk about your organization and then ask about any soft skills that are important to succeeding – creativity or dependability or team work or whatever.
  • Discuss the job basics and ask how the person rates the applicant on the most important ones.
  • Move on to areas where the applicant could grow further and what it would take for that to happen.
  • Before you close, ask for anyone else who might be another reference and how to contact that person.
  • Say thanks!

Tip 2.  Recognize that what you do not learn can be just as important as what you do hear.  What does the reference say about reporting relationships or titles or actual work in relation to what you have been told by the applicant? Think about whether the reference has been notified you will be called or prepared to talk to you – how does that follow-through or lack of it impact their ability to do your work?  Does the reference want to work with the applicant again?  Is the applicant eligible for rehire?

Tip 3.  Use all resources.

If you are having trouble reaching an applicant’s references, ask the applicant to make it happen and to give you alternatives.

When you know someone who has worked at places where the applicant worked or is a great networker in your field, call your contact and see what you can learn. I regularly get calls about people I have worked with in the past.

Look for links to people you know on an applicant’s social media profiles.

Certainly reference checking may also include education and background checks which you can outsource.

If you are not talking to an applicant’s past bosses and team leaders or peers, you are missing useful information that will help you make a much better decision.