Art of Checking References

To check references effectively, you will have to do much more than casually call the people on a list that the candidate supplies. But the effort is worth it. No other step in the hiring process is more important. If you don’t check references well, you will inevitably make some bad hires- and let some of your best candidates slip by. Both mistakes are costly.

a. Don’t be fooled

References are keys to hiring decisions because the other two main factors- resumes and interviews- are unreliable by themselves. Resumes may be intentionally misleading; studies find that a quarter to a third of them are doctored to exaggerate credentials and accomplishments. Interviews, too, can be deceptive, More and more candidates are being trained and coached to come across well in conversation. In fact, some become more skilled than their interviewers at managing the interview.
Occasionally, an interview will bias the hiring decision in the other direction. A candidate who is uncomfortable- for any reason from shyness to indigestion- might nonetheless do superb work in his or her area of expertise. But if the interview goes badly, and is given too much weight, this candidate will never get the chance.

b. Haste makes waste

In any case, by the time finalists are being interviewed for a job, there is usually tremendous pressure to fill it. Consequently, job offers are too often extended on the basis of a first impression.
To avoid this haste, check references early in the candidate assessment process. Better than resumes or interviews by themselves, they will tell you how a candidate has performed in the past. And this, better than anything else, predicts how he or she will perform in the future.
To improve your reference checking results, let’s examine the three basic steps involved. First, of course, you must decide who to contact. Then, you must conduct your exchange with each reference source so that you get the needed information. Finally, you must evaluate each reference promptly, so that you can reach the right conclusion.

c. Who you gonna call

You may not be afraid of ghosts, but your candidates are. They don’t want you to hear a balanced assessment of their past. And they would rather you didn’t learn about any past mistakes or conflicts that haunt them. With this in mind, take your candidate’s references list with several grains of salt.
Make sure that the relationships between the candidate and his references are spelled out. The most informative references will come from people who are, or have been professionally involved with the candidates’ day-to-day work. Past supervisors, peers and subordinates are all good bets. To evaluate specialized knowledge, you’ll want to speak with other specialists familiar with the candidate’s work.
Some references should be discounted or ignored. Character references from friends and relatives, for example, tend to be more glowing than informative. And beware if references from personnel professionals. They’re probably not familiar with the candidate’s day-to-day performance, and are hesitant to reveal anything, no matter how true, which might lead to legal action.
Ideally, you should begin with a choice of four to six useful reference sources. If you work from the candidate’s list, check the last references first (it’s likely to be the most objective) and work backwards up the list.

d. Look beyond the list

You are not limited to the names a candidate gives you. You can often find excellent reference sources through your industry contacts, through professional associations, and through any other network which applies. By doing your own research, you may reach sources that are more objective, and have less coaching from the candidate. People with no vested interest in your candidate’s future feel most free to talk.
Before talking to any reference source, however, inform the candidate of your intentions. If at all possible, have him or her sign a form which allows you to verify information, and absolves you of any legal actions resulting from your research.
Once you begin talking with your reference sources, be sure to ask each one whether they know of other people with whom you should discuss your candidate. TALK is the magic word. You should converse with reference shources whenever possible. Conversations help clarify and confirm the claims that are in written recommendations.
The very best approach to reference checking is to personally meet with as many of your sources as you can at their offices. In a face-to-face meeting, body language and facial expressions will guide you to areas requiring further exploration. You will also tend to get more sincere, complete answers this way.


e. Easy things first

The telephone is useful in checking credentials. Often a call or two is all it will take to verify degrees, honors, professional memberships and the like. If the candidate’s claims don’t jibe with the facts, you may want to save yourself any further research time.

  • Start with the facts

When you’re ready to begin talking with reference sources, establish a rapport before asking difficult questions. Describe your own position and your potential interest in the candidate. Then, verify dates of employment, job title, responsibilities, accomplishments, income earned, and any other pertinent facts. If the candidate has been accurate in representing his or her career, you’ll get many “yes” answers. They will establish a positive tone.
Now, you’re ready to lead into more complex, subjective questions. What were the candidate’s strengths on the job? Were there areas in which he or she should improve? Was he or she dependable, a team player? How would you compare his or her work with others who held the same job?
Don’t be afraid to ask pointed questions regarding your areas of concern. You want to know about your candidate’s reliability, self-motivation, need for supervision, ability to make sound decisions, and capacity for teamwork. You’ll also want to know about his of her adaptability to the corporate structure, general pleasantness to be around, potential for leadership, and fitness for periodic promotion. If applicable, ask about the candidate’s relationship with vendors, customers and professional colleagues.
Some of the most awkward questions may prove themselves the most useful. Why did the candidate leave your company? Is he/she eligible for reemployment if he/she re-applies? It’s not fun to ask such questions, but you need to know- so ask.

  • Evaluate ASAP

Don’t wait to evaluate your findings. By evaluating and grading each reference immediately after checking it, you will remember not only what was said, but what was implied, and what your gut feelings were.
Evaluate each reference independently of the others. Assign each a grade from excellent to poor. Once you’ve checked as many references as you deem necessary, compile you evaluations. Assign them a composite grade, and use them to summarize what your candidate has to offer. View with caution references that are less than excellent.
Confront any discrepancies
Many firms have a policy of not hiring candidates who have less than excellent references. If your reference checks cause you strong concerns, but you’d still like to pursue placing the candidate, confront him or her with the problem. Be sure not to divulge the source of your information; stick to the information itself. Give the candidate a chance to explain and ask for the names of people who might verify the candidate’s version of the event. Confronting a candidate with a negative reference may involve you in a lawsuit if you are not careful to protect your sources.

  • Handle with care

In deciding whether or not to hire, place or market a candidate, you are affecting the future of an organization. The candidate will bring all that he or she is, to the new situation.
If you have checked your references effectively, you’ll know enough to make a wise decision.


“The article above was written by construction recruiter Frederick Hornberger, CPC, president of Hornberger Management Company in Wilmington, Delaware (, a construction recruiter specializing in senior level, executive search.”