Hiring the right people for your company is both a science and an art. Get it right, and you’ll welcome amazing employees who contribute to your company’s growth and success. But get it wrong, and you could quickly find yourself carrying dead weight.

While the hiring process itself is designed to help you choose the best candidates for the job, application forms, and interviews can only tell you so much.

These may be great tools for identifying people with the right skills and experience, but they tell you a lot less about the softer skills that can make such a difference in whether your new hire will gel with your team and company culture. Hiring assessments are extremely valuable for measuring these softer, cultural variables. But there is one other tool at your disposal. The reference check.

Reference checks are the only real tool we have to assess a candidate’s suitability beyond the word of the potential employee themselves. They provide insight into the true past performance of the candidate.

At their most basic, reference checks can help verify the details a candidate supplies during their application. Sadly, exaggerating or misrepresenting skills and experience is common – according to HireRight’s 2017 survey, 85% of the companies surveyed had uncovered a lie or a misrepresentation in the information provided by an applicant.

However, reference checks, when done right, can also help you gauge a candidate’s fit with your company’s culture and working practices. These may be less immediately serious compared to finding out that someone has lied on their application, but they still have major impacts on whether a new hire will be successful in their role.

So, how do you go about getting the most from your reference checks? In this post, we’ll take a look at what you can and can’t ask during a reference check, and how to encourage referees to give you the information you need to make good hiring decisions.


What Information Can You Legally Ask for in a Reference Check?

Many people believe that the only information that you can ask for when you do a reference check are the dates of employment and what position the person held.

However, this isn’t actually the case. While you may find that previous employers are reluctant to give you much beyond these basic facts, this usually has more to do with company policy than the actual law.

The main concern for many companies is that they’ll leave themselves open to a defamation suit if they stray beyond these facts. Fortunately, many states now have laws in place that give employers a qualified level of immunity when providing references, as long as they are being truthful and acting in good faith.

Not all states have these protections, so it is best to check before you take up references. This way, you’ll know what you can reasonably expect past employers to be willing to disclose.

From your point of view as the new employer, there is also the need to consider your liability if you don’t properly check a new hire’s references. If you fail to take up references and something later comes to light that puts other employees at risk, you could leave yourself open to a negligent hiring claim.

You should also avoid asking about past salary packages, since some states have bans on these, and make sure any questions you ask comply with equal employment opportunity laws.

With all this in mind, you can certainly ask questions that go far beyond a simple “when did this person work here and what did they do?”. Just be aware that you might need to do some legwork to persuade the other person to tell you more.


How to Do a Reference Check

Typically, reference checks aren’t done until you’ve made the candidate a conditional offer. You can do them earlier in the hiring process, but make sure you have the candidate’s written permission to contact their referees before you make an approach.

If the person is still employed, they may be reluctant to give this permission until a job offer is made since it could jeopardize their relationship with their current employer. Unless you have good reason to ask earlier, waiting until a conditional offer is on the table is generally the best approach.

It’s a good idea to think about what you most want to know and who is best placed to give you this information. That way you can target your questions to the right people. Many candidates will simply supply the details of their previous line manager or the HR department, but these might not be the people who will be able to answer your actual questions.

Instead, work with the candidate to find referees who were best placed to observe them demonstrating the skills you want to check on. For example, if you are hiring someone for a management role, it might be worth talking to a member of their former team, who will be able to speak to their leadership qualities. If you want to know if someone is a good team player, you could ask to speak to one of their peers.

It depends on what questions you have and what skills the role you are hiring for demands.

It is also worth speaking to more than one person. Not only does this help to reduce personal bias, but it also gives you different perspectives of the candidate. Standard practice is to ask for at least two references, but many companies prefer to ask for three or four.

When you have the contact details of the referees and the candidate’s permission to contact them, get in touch to arrange a time to speak. It’s best to arrange a phone call or a face-to-face meeting instead of trying to take up references via email. This allows you to ask more detailed questions and probe deeper into certain areas if needed.

People are also more likely to open up during an informal phone chat than in written communication. However, try not to be too led by your impression of someone’s tone of voice or hesitations – while these can sometimes indicate the person knows more than they’re saying, it might also just be their way of communicating.

Instead, concentrate on asking the right questions and listening carefully to the answers.


What Questions Should You Ask During a Reference Check?

Since so many people are wary of giving too much information about former employees or team members, it can take a little work to make sure you get the answers you need from your reference checks.

Start by introducing yourself and explaining the purpose of your call. It’s best to begin with the assumption that the person you’re considering hiring is a great candidate. Reassure the referee that you just want to know more about the candidate and how they work.

Describe the role you are considering the candidate for and the skills and tasks that will be involved. Ask if the person you’re speaking to has seen them do similar work and how they approached it

Try to be both specific and open-ended with your questions. You want to encourage the referee to talk, so you need to give them enough structure to get them started, without leading them into saying certain things.

For example, you might be hiring for a role that needs to juggle competing priorities and meet tight deadlines. In that case, you might ask something like, “can you tell me about a time when X had to manage different urgent workstreams and how they coped with that?”

This also gives the referee an opening to raise any concerns without specifically asking for negative feedback.

Don’t forget to ask about the softer skills as well as the candidate’s experience and past performance. Ask questions about their emotional intelligence, social skills, attitude, and values. The answers to these questions can help you gauge whether the candidate is a good fit with the culture and work practices of your organization.

Questions like “how does X perform under pressure?”, “can you tell me how X handles conflict”, or “would you describe X as more competitive or collaborative?”, can help you assess how the candidate works and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

This is also an opportunity to discover insights to help you get the most from your new hire. Especially if you’re talking to their line manager, you might want to ask about what management style the candidate responds best to, what motivates them, and what areas they may need more support with.

Of course, you also want to verify that the information the candidate has given you is accurate. While their HR team can confirm things like employment dates, job titles, and whether there were any serious issues, you can also ask other referees about specific skills and achievements.

Use the information you’ve gleaned from application forms and interviews to gently test the ground. For example, if the candidate has told you about a specific scenario in which they shone, ask their referees about that scenario and what they can tell you about how the candidate handled it.

Listen carefully to the responses and make notes you can revisit after the conversation. And don’t be shy about asking follow-up questions during the call if something the referee says prompts concerns or reservations. It is best to clarify these right away so that you can hire the candidate without hesitation.

Reference checks are often overlooked but can be a fantastic tool for making sure you hire the best people for your company. By speaking to the right people, asking specific questions, and considering softer skills as well as past performance, you can make sure the candidate is a good fit for the job.