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The Right Way to Check Employment References

Successful managers know when to delegate, and when not to. When it comes to reference checks, our advice is simple.

Whoever the potential employee will report to, that person is the one that should conduct the reference checks - every time, without exception (not even the MD should get a pass).

Added on 16.10.2018

There is really no better safeguard against hiring the wrong person than seeing whether their references add to the impression you got at interview or contradict it. Below we outline the standard process for referencing that we recommend you follow.

Be Certain you're Within the Law

First, you need the candidate's permission. We recommend you get this in writing, in the form of specific consent to approach named people. Next, be sure you know what you can and cannot ask about. Finally, remember that all information is confidential.

If you're not familiar with the official .GOV guidelines on discrimination and confidentiality then do check your knowledge is up to date. If you're left in any doubt about anything you would like to do, consult someone qualified to give employment law advice.

Don't Take Shortcuts

We'd advise against sending letters or emails. You will get far more information - and in far less time for all concerned - from a phone call. Plus you'll be able to detect warmth (or lack of it) towards the person concerned, ask any follow up questions you need to, and get properly fleshed out answers with the detail you need - detail that is almost always missing from formal written communication.

Do It Yourself

The first rule of reference checking club is that you do not delegate. The second rule of reference checking club is...

Be Thorough

Most HR departments are only going to be able to confirm the person's role and employment start and end dates. You will usually want to talk to:

Their immediate line manager

If you're following our advice above then this is your counterpart; the person they used to report to.

Their boss

Depending on the role and the size of the company this might not be appropriate. But, if your candidate had contact with the MD, talk to them.

ALL their given references

Don't skimp on this, even if they include academic and personal referees. These people can still give you useful information if you know what to ask, and it all helps build a picture of the person.

Any contacts of your own

With the above provisos that you must disclose your intentions to the candidate and get their approval, if you have contacts who are familiar with them then you should approach those people too.

What to Ask a Previous Employer?

The basics

To build a good picture of your candidate you need to start with the basics, to establish that the information you have (from LinkedIn, CV, application form, interview process) is correct. So,

  • dates of employment,
  • the role and responsibilities,
  • salary and any bonuses / overtime etc, and
  • previous employer.

Dig a bit deeper

You can always ask follow-up questions or seek clarification. When talking to their manager(s) or colleagues, we strongly recommend that you dig into the specifics of their role. You should have built a good picture of this if you've been asking the right interview questions, so you can cross-reference your candidate's version of their job with the people they worked alongside.

The full picture

Here's a list of other questions you might want to consider, although some these might not apply depending on the exact role:

  • What was their absenteeism record?
  • Do you think they have any weaknesses?
  • How do they compare to their colleagues?
  • What were they like as a mentor / manager?
  • What was their general day to day mood in the office?
  • Is there anyone they didn't get along with?
  • How good were they at delivering tight deadlines and urgent tasks?
  • Would you take them on again?

As with their role / responsibilities, these are all starting points in a conversation that should be enlightening.

Remember that, in jobs where they are fairly paid and there are opportunities for advancement, people move on if they are not happy with the people they work with. So trying to uncover as much as you can about your candidate's personality is an essential part of ensuring that they are going to be happy working for you, as much as it is being sure that you are happy to employ them.