When you have a task that you complete on a regular basis, or one that seems to have a very simple method, it is easy to fall into the trap of taking them for granted. Checking references for a potential employee can very easily become one of these tasks. It is almost too easy for the reference check to become a mechanical, automatic part of the hiring process. It really shouldn’t be though because, despite how it may seem, taking up references is both important and, if done right, a very informative function.
When you are in recruitment, you tend to see some repeated myths that somehow make their way into the public consciousness and are almost impossible to dislodge. One of these is the commonly held belief that you can only give a good reference. It is understandable how this myth developed, but it is simply not the case. What you cannot do is give a false or misleading reference, and this is fair because it means a disgruntled employer could not purposely give a terrible reference to prevent a current team member leaving. So, you do not have to give a good reference; as long as what you say is grounded in fact and truthful then you can provide an accurate reference even if it does not always reflect well on the employee. However, the myth persists, and even if it didn’t, very few of us would want a reference to work badly for someone. So, there is possibly some grounds for being a little bit wary of the written reference provided by the potential employee. After all, why would they provide you with a bad one?
What can you do?
What you are perfectly entitled to do (providing you made it clear to the candidate that you would do so) is pick up the phone and check the information in the reference. This is time-consuming and sometimes not a task we are all happy about, but it is well worth the effort.
- Start with HR departments and managers who will be able to confirm the basic details of the candidate’s employment. Length of service, employment dates, job roles, salaries and so on are all available to you to confirm the information you have been provided.
- Be a little more creative. If you can speak to a line manager or someone who your is equivalent in the old company, you will be able to ask more personal questions about performance. Did they work well in a team? Are they dependable and self-motivated and so on? If you can forge a bond with your counterpart, you may find they volunteer more information that you would get otherwise.
- Create a list of probing questions such as ‘is the candidate open to development’ and ‘would the previous company re-hire or keep the candidate if they had the opportunity’? These may gain you a little more depth of understanding.
- Know what you cannot ask. There are some very clear areas that you must avoid. These are sensible and there to protect you and the candidate from any potential discrimination. Obvious things you cannot ask include sexuality or religion for example. Try not to see them as restrictive though; in fact, they can be used to guide you to the questions you should be asking. If you want to be particularly careful, why not create a list and run it past your legal people to check you are inside the law?
- Finally, be open and fair when you are checking references. If you are already far enough along the employment route to be following up in this way, then it is worth the time and effort to make sure you get a good, even-handed, view of the person.
As always, we are happy to help with this or any other employment needs. Feel free to call us, and we will be glad to help.
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