Knowledge & Insight

Obtaining candidate references - are you doing enough?

Tue 1 May 2018

It’s a position that every employer finds themselves in at some point – you’ve carried out an extensive search, attracted a number of good quality candidates, and via a comprehensive selection process you have finally identified the individual you believe is perfect for the role. Now all you have to do is check their references.

This can be a very simple job – just ask their previous two or three employers a few standard questions, tick the box, then make the offer. And in many cases this is sufficient to gain a reasonable insight into how your preferred candidate has performed in the past, and how they’ll perform for you. However, after going to such lengths to identify the ideal recruit, it would be imprudent to be any less thorough at the final stage of the process. Hiring a poor candidate can have a huge impact upon a business - it can not only be financially damaging but can also present significant operational and reputational risks. So carrying out a little extra due diligence is always a wise step before making an offer.

So, we’ve put together a few techniques that we regularly use to assess whether candidates will make a productive, long-term contribution to our client companies.

Obtain peers as references

There’s nothing wrong with seeking references from hiring-managers at current or previous places of work. In fact it makes perfect sense to do so. But hiring-managers can only provide a reference based on how well the candidate has performed whilst under their management. And whilst this can provide valuable insight into a candidate’s attitude and ability to carry out their job, getting additional references from peers can reveal how the individual performs as a member of a team. Plus peer references are usually far more open and honest, as they’re rarely influenced by company policy.

If your potential new hire currently has regional or departmental peers working at a similar level, ask to speak with these people. You can request their names during the interview process, or even build this into your application form. It is important to move away from the mindset that says you can only take references from current or previous hiring-managers. To get a truly accurate insight into a candidate’s attitudes and abilities, using peers to provide references can be an extremely effective technique.

Referencing should be a multi-person process

It is common practice for a single individual to have responsibility for acquiring all candidate references. This will usually fall to your Human Resources Manager or another member of your HR staff, and whilst this can be sufficient for less senior roles (and makes for efficient processing), using multiple people to acquire references can deliver some significant advantages.

Once you’ve spoken with a referee and noted their responses, it can be useful to return to them a few days later and have someone else ask similar questions, either in a different order or perhaps pitched from a slightly different angle. This will enable you to check for consistency in the referee’s answers, and if you’re not entirely happy with their response, you can always go back a third time or hire an external company to question them further. The minor inconvenience you impose upon the referee will be insignificant compared to the cost of making a mistake in hiring the wrong candidate.

Focus on specific details when obtaining references

Rather than simply relying on the standard reference questions that most companies seem to ask, you should always focus on questions you really want answers to. These should be tailored to the kind of assets and experience you require in your new hire. Questions such as, “tell me about this person’s ability to work as part of a team” or “would you employ them again?” are too shallow and invite simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.

It’s important to think clearly about the kind of person you are looking for, and to identify the qualities and capabilities they must possess if they are to perform well in their new position. If the role is particularly demanding - perhaps the new hire will be required to work very hard to initiate change - then ask if the candidate is a “9 – 5” sort of person, or do they go the extra mile to deliver results? Ask the referee to back up their responses by providing examples of what the candidate has achieved. Don’t settle for generic remarks such as “they are a good leader”. Always ask for evidence of this.

Candidate referencing should be a key part of the selection process

If you’re wary of pressing referees too hard and you feel your technique is verging on interrogation, just consider the ramifications of making a bad hire. Spending a little more time and effort in getting good quality references is sure to be well worth it. And the potential downside of failing to get good references is enormous.

Ultimately, any selection process is concerned with acquiring accurate information on candidates so you can make better hiring decisions - and getting good quality references is perhaps the most effective way of doing this. So don’t consider candidate referencing as a last tick in the box. Give it as much focus as the rest of your selection process.

We hope that you find this article useful, and we’re confident that by implementing some of these techniques you will be able to acquire detailed and accurate candidate references and minimise the risk of making costly hiring mistakes.

Get in Touch
If you would like to discuss a vacancy, or you're looking for a new opportunity, please send us an email or give us a call - we'd be delighted to hear from you.
Employers - Submit a Vacancy
Candidates - Submit your CV

Sign up to our newsletter

Our close ties with leading employers and professional bodies provide us with a unique view of developments across a variety of industries. Through regular e-newsletters, we are able to share these insights with our clients and candidates, providing valuable news and information about their specific sectors.

Name *
Email Address *
Industry Sectors *
Functional Sectors

   * indicates a compulsory entry.
Note: you will be sent a message containing a link which must be used to confirm your email address. You may remove yourself from our mailing list at any time by clicking the "unsubscribe" link in any newsletter, or by contacting us directly. Your personal details will be retained in accordance with our privacy policy.