Of course, we all ensure that we check references before making a final decision on hiring – don’t we?
Even when you find an applicant with the perfect CV, who interviews brilliantly, don’t be tempted to skip this vital follow-up step.
Because when job hunting, it’s natural for candidates to want to make themselves look as good as possible and to appear suitable for the widest possible range of jobs. Whilst there will always be the occasional person who is deliberately trying to mislead, most just want to maximise their chances.
So it’s always wise to seek an outside opinion from previous employers.
What can references reveal?
Effective references often reveal invaluable insight into a candidate’s work style, attitude, successes and failures in the past. They serve to confirm you have all the facts you need to make an informed decision – or fill in any bits that might have been accidentally ‘missed out’.
How should you structure reference requests?
Think about two different elements of the reference. One concerns facts – employment dates, job titles, responsibilities, and so on. This throws up any discrepancies such as someone saying they were an ‘IT Director’ when in fact they were an “IT Assistant’. If all the facts you have been given match up, then you know the candidate is who they say they are.
The second part is about fleshing out what you discovered at interview. Will your preferred candidate fit in with your company’s culture? How did they work as part of a team? How do they react under pressure? These sorts of questions give you a feel for the real person and their relationships with others.
Preparing for the conversation
Prepare in advance for the reference conversation and be clear in your own mind about what information you want to gain. Are you verifying facts, fillings gaps? Focus on whether your chosen candidate is a good fit for the job you want them for.
What type of questions should I ask?
Firstly, you should establish the relationship of the referee to the candidate – were they their supervisor, co-worker, team member, etc., and how long they have worked together. Then move on to facts around start and end dates, job title, supervisors, departments. What were their duties and objectives?
Having done that, you can start to ask questions such as:
- What skills, knowledge, competencies, and strengths did the candidate contribute? And did they develop any new ones while working for you?
- How did they impact your company?
- How did the candidate get on with colleagues?
- How would you rate their communication skills?
- Did the candidate deliver on set objectives?
- Can you identify any areas for growth?
- Was the candidate ever subject to disciplinary action? What were the details?
- Is there anything else that would be useful for us to know about the candidate?
What if someone can’t give you a reference?
Occasionally you may get a situation where the candidate is unable to provide references. Whilst this should raise a note of caution, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker.
The first thing to do is to have a conversation with them about why, and you’ll hopefully get some insight. It may be that the person has taken a long career break and is no longer in touch with old colleagues. Or perhaps they have only had one previous role, and that company has now gone bust.
In these cases, you can try to identify alternative referees outside of the workplace, such as sports leaders for teams they may play with. But if no suitable references are available, and you really feel you want to make the hire, make it very clear that the offer is a probationary one.
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