Busting some myths about reference checking

Reference checking is sometimes seen as a marginal part of the hiring process by both the candidate and the hiring manager. After all, referees are the last item on a resume, and checking references is the last step before making an offer – how important can it be?

The reality is that proper reference checking can lower the cost of hiring by minimising the changes of making a wrong hire, as well as confirming that the candidate is the right fit for your organisation and that their skills and attributes are suited to the role.

Reference checks are used to make sure that prospective employers have accurate information about a candidate’s work history, skills and personal attributes. While it’s true that a referee is unlikely to give a bad reference, a good recruiter is able to tune into what is not being said. ‘You need to be a detective’, says Melissa Lombardo, Senior Consultant at Challenge Consulting, ‘and ask the same question again in different ways’.  The referee’s tone of voice is the biggest clue, she explains, which is why a phone call works better than email. ‘If they are hesitant, you can hear it, and in the same way if they are really enthusiastic it comes across in their tone.’


Here are some of the commonly held assumptions about reference checking, and why they are wrong.

I can’t give my current manager as a reference because I don’t want them to know I’m looking for a new position.
This misconception is totally understandable. Remember, the reference check is the last step before you are made an offer, so by this stage you are pretty likely to be offered the role. The most reliable reference comes from the person to whom you currently report, but you can nominate others, such as a sports coach, somebody you interned for or a tutor, Lombardo suggests – particularly if you are new to the workforce.

The candidate chooses their own referee, so a referee will say only good things.
This is true to an extent, but a good recruiter will be able to ask probing questions to assess if the candidate is right for the role. ‘We also ask the candidate if we may speak to a more senior person in the organisation’, says Lombardo. Speaking to the manager’s manager can overcome the issue of a personal issue between the direct manager and the candidate.

The reason I’m leaving is because I don’t get on with my manager, so I can’t nominate them as a referee.
Often people leave a manger, rather than a company, it’s true. But a good recruiter will see through this and delve deeper to find out your competencies. ‘We ask to speak to the manager’s manger, or the HR manager’, says Lombardo. ‘We’ll ask if they would work with the person again. How they answer tells us a lot about the candidate.’

If a referee says something negative about me, I have no chance of getting the role.
‘It’s quite rare for a reference check to be bad news for a candidate’, says Lombardo. ‘If a referee raises a potential problem, it may be in an area not relevant to the new role. We flag it with the client, but often they find it irrelevant’.

If the person nominates me as their referee, I have to give the information.
There is no obligation to agree to provide a reference. ‘If you feel you’re not an appropriate referee, tell the candidate’, says Lombardo. ‘The reference must be meaningful. If you didn’t supervise the person, of feel you’re not appropriate for any reason, say so’. You must not give a reference that is misleading, deceptive or defamatory.



Make sure the reference is legitimate.
Call a landline if at all possible. ‘You want to hear them answer with the name of the organisation’, says Lombardo.  ‘If you have only a mobile number, ask for a work email address to send a confirmation of your call to.’ Fake references are rare, but they happen.  A 2012 survey by Balance Recruitment revealed 4% of employees have used a fake referee. Check that the company is real, and that the candidate has worked there. ‘If we only have a mobile number, we ask for a company address to follow up by email’, explains Lombardo. ‘We also look up the referee’s profile on LinkedIn.’

Have a template for checking references.
There are many examples of reference checking templates online. Use them to ask and record the answers to competency-based questions. Be careful not to ask anything that could be construed as discriminatory, such as relationship status, age, disability, or whether the candidate has children or is of a particular ethnicity. Keep a record, as the candidate is entitled to ask to see their references.

You must have the candidate’s permission to call a referee.
Confirm this with them right before you do the check. This also allows them to let the referee know they should expect your call.

Some companies have a ‘no references’ policy.
If a manger tells you they are unable to give a reference, this may be a blanket policy. Check whether this is the case before assuming they are simply unwilling to discuss the candidate.

Not all managers are great communicators.
‘If all you get are yes and no answers, this doesn’t mean the referee is being evasive,’ says Lombardo. They may just not be experienced at acting as a referee. 



Choose your referees wisely.
They should be able to confirm your suitability for the role, as well as your employment and responsibilities, strengths and development areas.

Prepare your referee.
Let them know you are nominating them as your referee before you mass on their details. It is not in your interest for them to get an unexpected phone call! Tell them about the job some detail, particularly about the skills and competencies required, and suggest they think of some examples of how you have demonstrated them. It’s really helpful to a recruiter if you can line up a time that they are available. ‘Sometimes it takes us weeks to contact a referee’, says Lombardo.  ‘If you can give us times to call your referee it cuts out a lot of frustration’.

Set your social media pages to private if you have any concerns.
Both recruiters and employers can, and probably will, run an online search. Make sure you would be happy for a prospective employer to see your groups, interests and what you got up to last weekend.

Make sure your LinkedIn profile is complete and professional.
‘Use a professional photograph’, says Lombardo. ‘First impressions count’. So don’t use the one of you with Fluffy the dog, no matter how charming, and don’t post a blurred selfie.