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Avoid Reference Checking Mistakes

If you’re asking your applicants for a list of references during the first or second stage of the selection process, you’re on the right track. In fact, just making this request can help you, no matter what you ultimately do with the resulting list of names. Even if you ignore them, this move allows candidates without reliable references to self-select and remove themselves from the pool, and it demonstrates that you take your hiring and screening process seriously. But one you’ve gathered these references and you have these names and numbers in hand, you may as well use them to your advantage. Keep these tips in mind.

1. Actually complete the checks. A surprising number of employers complete the hiring process without making a single call—either because they don’t trust references to speak honestly, they don’t have the time, or they find the process socially awkward. These reasons may be valid, but in all of these cases, employers are missing out on a little additional input that could mean the difference between a great hire and an expensive mistake.

2. Don’t ignore neutral responses. Of course very few references will say negative things about the candidate– This is bad karma, cruel, and unprofessional. So if there’s something off about a candidate, don’t expect to hear this news directly. Read between the lines. Bland, meaningless remarks are a red flag. So are references who try to avoid the call or hurry to end the conversation once you have them on the line.

3. Ask very specific, but open ended questions. Some of our favorites include the following: “If you had to choose, which task would you most prefer NOT to assign to this candidate?” “With which tasks do you trust her the most?” “How would you describe her response to coaching and criticism?”

4. Keep your questions fair. Ask the same questions of each reference, and keep both the number of questions and the number of checked references consistent between each candidate. Don’t contact five references for one candidate and only two for the next.

5. Keep the nature of the relationship in mind, and consider both seniority and intimacy. A senior company executive may have lots of clout, which is nice, but she may not have seen the candidate in action on a daily basis. A 25-year-old direct supervisor may not have much experience or management savvy, but he worked side by side with the candidate every day.

Most important, complete reference checks without allowing the results to overshadow the rest of the hiring process. Consider the context, and don’t allow a few off-the-cuff remarks to push you toward the wrong candidate or away from the right one. For additional guidance that can help you interpret the results of your reference checks, reach out to the NC staffing experts at PSU.

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