What is a reference check? 

A reference check is commonly performed towards the end of the hiring process. It is typically used to confirm information that is provided by the job applicant. For instance, if you want to be sure an applicant worked where they say they worked, you can use a reference check to confirm those details. However, reference checks should go far beyond these fairly common questions and really help you confirm you have the right person for the job. In order to do it right, it takes effort and a structured approach. 

What can a good reference check uncover? 

1. Confirmation of previous work & academic history

You might be surprised at how many people stretch the truth when it comes to their work history or school history. When doing a reference check, it is always a good practice to check both simply to confirm what you are being told.  Many people attend the University without gaining a degree.  The registrar at a University can provide “official” documentation of the degree earned.  

2. Confirmation of achievements highlighted by the applicant.

When applicants are interviewing for a position, they are often tempted to take credit for achievements that they weren’t responsible for. When doing reference checks, it is always a great practice to check these achievements with the manager of the applicant at the time of the achievement. The Topgrading method for reference checking is a proven method to finding out this truth and is a great way to keep an applicant honest throughout the interview process. 

3. Previous challenges or behavior patterns that were troubling.

If you know how to ask the right questions with the right tone, you will be surprised at what you can uncover.  See examples of specific questions that should be asked below. 

4. Strengths & weaknesses of a job applicant

This is critical when hiring, you need to know from a third-party what the true strengths and weaknesses are of the candidate. This will go a long way in developing the applicant once onboarded. 

5. Communication styles that are best utilized with the job applicant.

As standard practice it is always good to ask the reference what communication style works best with the applicant. This way, starting day one you can communicate in a style that is best suited for them and be effective in onboarding the applicant. 

How to ask questions when doing a reference check: 

1. The normal questions

What was it like to work with the applicant? How long have you known the applicant? What are the applicant’s strengths? These questions are all fine and not a bad way to begin the conversation, but chances are the answers will all be favorable and are really considered lay-up questions. The real value of the reference check does not start until the reference is speaking in a way that is unguarded. 

2. Ask leading questions.

What management style was productive when managing the applicant? What communication method was most successful when managing the applicant? How did you develop the applicant? These kinds of questions allow for the reference to think back and determine what challenges they faced when managing the applicant. More times than not, they will talk about a scenario they had to overcome with the applicant. As an example, you might ask, what method did you use when communicating with the applicant? The answer may sound like this: The applicant tended to be sensitive to feedback so I made sure to meet with him each day and give constant feedback so that it was done in bite-sized chunks instead of overwhelming him all at once with what he may consider criticism and become sensitive about. This feedback is invaluable to you as the potential new manager of the applicant and can quickly help you determine job fit.    

3. Ask probing questions

Ask about achievements the applicant highlighted in the interview process: Applicant mentioned they were the top of their sales team, tell me a little bit more about that: The answer can either be, yes, they beat out 20 other teammates or might be something like, yeah, they had this one big sale that put them over the top that year and it was the first time they got top salesperson. Either answer might be fine, but the devil is always in the details when evaluating job candidates, especially when it comes to trying to find top performers. 

A few rules of thumb to follow when doing a reference check: 

1. Check a minimum of 3 references. 
2. Be sure the references are valid

Make sure that your references are valid and not just buddies of the applicant. 

3. Take your time

Do not rush the process, the more methodical you are the better information you will uncover. 

4. Take notes

Chances are you will find out great information on how to best manage the applicant and you need to use it in order to get the most out of the effort to do the reference check in the first place. 


Related Resource: Best Hiring Practices – Everything you need to know 

Related Blog Post: What to look for in a resume – when shortlisting a candidates