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When — and How — Should You Check References?

Reference checks have been a staple of the hiring process for decades, but how often do we really ev...

Posted by Lisa Farrell, Marketing Manager on Jul 14, 2020 1:59:55 PM

Reference checks have been a staple of the hiring process for decades, but how often do we really evaluate our reference check processes? Reference checks are a great idea in theory, but in practice they’re often a formality at best or riddled with the potential for bias at worst. So how can you turn this rote step in the hiring process into a part of the process that generates real insight about your candidates?

Making the most of your reference checking process depends on what you need to get out of that part of the hiring process. Reference checks can support other information-gathering processes, such as interviews and assessments. They can give you a holistic look at each candidate’s skills, talents and competencies. But that requires a thoughtful approach to how and when they’re incorporated into your process.

“When you ask questions out of context, they can become dangerous and harmful,” says Anthony Hayes, national director of talent management at The Mice Groups. But when conducted with intention, reference checks can provide specific job-related information on each candidate. “You should be asking questions to determine whether you’re making the best hire possible,” he continues.

Here’s how to find the best point in your hiring process to check references effectively and without bias.

Pinpoint the Reference’s Purpose

In common practice, reference checks confirm what the candidate says about themselves and their abilities during interviews. In high volume recruiting, you may not have the bandwidth to check references earlier in the process. “For the sake of efficiency, the best time to check references is when you’ve narrowed down the list of final candidates,” says Jessica Childress, managing attorney at the Childress Firm, PLLC, a firm focused on labor and employment law. But to minimize confirmation bias (only hearing what you want to hear), you should check references before you’ve extended an offer or made up your mind about who to hire.

If you conduct reference checks toward the end of your hiring process, you can leverage what you learned from the interview and skill or personality assessments in the call, Childress says. When conducting the reference check, recruiters and hiring managers should verify that what the candidate says is supported by previous employers.

If the purpose of the reference is to inform and provide content to be probed in future interviews, on the other hand, then it should come before or wedged between multiple rounds of interviews.

If your top candidates will go through additional interviews, references fit well before the final interview. “You’ll gain additional information that can be used throughout the course of the interview to uncover personality and behavioral traits,” Hayes says. “This allows the interviewers to be more strategic with their questions.”

You should ask behavioral questions based on competencies actually needed to perform the job, Childress says. For a high-stress retail position, for example, recruiters might ask how the candidate handles challenges or performs in a team. “The types of questions that should be asked are situational ones that uncover facts about ability, personality, mental agility or other traits that are needed to do a job within the scope of a project,” Hayes says. When reference-checking for an engineering position, for instance, you might ask if the candidate was effective, time-conscious or agile in their previous role.

Do Your Due Diligence

Reference checks are different from background checks but can serve in a similar capacity with fewer limitations. In many states, Childress says, a conditional offer of employment is required prior to running a background check. But you can run reference checks at any point in the process. “The reference check process determines any red flags,” Childress says. “Reference-checking provides the defense to a negligent hiring claim.”

For example, the reference check might reveal that the candidate has a history of violent or racist tendencies. Finding out that the candidate could pose a threat to other employees before you extend an offer of employment can protect your employees’ safety and help your company avoid legal issues. In order to do your due diligence, try to talk to at least three professional references for each candidate, Childress suggests.

To remain compliant with labor and employment laws, your reference questions should be exclusively focused on skills and competencies. Soliciting information regarding a candidate’s protected class could open you up to a discrimination lawsuit. The easiest way to avoid this is by using uniform, pre-approved reference questions. “There should not be different questions coming from different recruiters,” Childress notes.

Federally protected classes are those covered under Title VII, including race, religion, place of origin, sex, and most recently sexual orientation and transgender status. Additional protected classes vary by state. If any information about protected class comes up, it should not play any role in the decision-making process. Conducting reference checks towards the late middle and end minimizes the number of reference calls to make — and the chance of accidentally learning information you don’t need to know.

Mitigate Bias Through Comprehensive Calls

Where you place reference checks in your process could help minimize confirmation bias. This occurs when you’ve already made a decision, and you weigh factors that support that decision more heavily than factors that don’t. When reference checks occur after an offer of employment has been extended, you’ve already decided that you’re going to hire the candidate. Unless the reference check produces severe red flags, then it probably won’t affect your decision.

Checking references in the middle-to-end of the process once you’ve narrowed the field a bit, on the other hand, allows you to use the information garnered from references when making your final decision — as opposed to using references to confirm your decision.

“If you get to the offer stage and then ask for references, reference calls are just validating what you’ve come to believe,” Hayes says. “But if you ask for references in the beginning or middle, it gives you the opportunity to break up the monotony of your own thinking.” For example, a reference might reveal that a candidate is very methodical in their approach to work. This could be an ideal trait for roles that require a high degree of attention to detail but could be a poor match for high-stress roles that require quick decision making. With that information, you can use additional interviews to ask the candidate how they deal with high-stress situations.

Bias might creep into your perceptions of the reference call, too. Some candidates’ previous employers, for example, may have a neutral reference policy, which means they will only give you the candidates’ dates of employment, job title and possibly salary (depending on local laws). This should not be held against the candidate.

Similarly, references may give seemingly negative answers to your questions, or pause too long before answering them. “If someone gives a seemingly negative reference call or declines to answer a question,” Hayes points out, “habit and perception will make you assume bad things.” If you ask the reference if they would hire the candidate back and receive a non-answer, for example, probe a little further by asking why. That candidate may have been a whistle-blower on corrupt governance at a previous organization, for example, and your dismissal could perpetuate negative reactions to ethical conduct.

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