For those of us in HR, the process of checking references on candidates is ingrained. We call, ask a few questions to verify dates and title, ask if the candidate is eligible for rehire, and, if we are lucky, we get some details about what type of employee the candidate was. In some ways the process is cursory and merely a way to show that we did our best to ensure we were not hiring a psychopath. Even though such an approach fulfills basic hiring practices, it does not always provide a useful tool for making a good decision about a a candidate.
In a time when many companies give out little more than an employment verification, it can be extra challenging to get a useful references. So, how can you improve your reference checks to get you the information you need to make a good hiring decision?
Just The Facts, Ma’am
There is an HR guideline out there that says that a best practice is to provide only basic information (e.g. dates of employment, last title held) when a potential employer calls to check on a former employee. The thought is that giving only objective information will minimize the risk of a former employee claiming defamation of character. For the reference checker, this unfortunately means that it may be difficult to get enough information about a candidate’s work history to make a good hiring decision.
If a company is being particularly tight-lipped about a former employee, try asking if the person is eligible for rehire. A simple yes or no can give you good information. Follow up by asking, “Why?” Although you may be speaking to someone who will be strict about answering this question, it does not hurt to ask to go beyond the basic facts.
It can be useful to have a section on the job application where the candidate gives you permission to check references. Sometimes a former employer will be more likely to speak freely if they have such a signed statement from the candidate. Former managers may also be more likely to speak if you assure them that their reference will be kept confidential from the candidate.
Rely on your network for references as well. It may be a challenge to go through formal company channels to get a detailed references, but people may be willing to speak more casually about a former employee when you do not take traditional routes. It can also be useful to have candidates provide a direct number to reach their reference. If you call someone on their personal number, they may feel more comfortable speaking freely than they would be through company channels.
Getting More Than Just Dates And Title
Verifying employment history can be an indication of whether or not someone is honest. If the candidate’s work history does not match up with the information from former employers, there could be other problems with what the candidate has told you about their skills and qualifications.
But often we need to go beyond a list of dates and titles. To get more information, treat the reference call similar to an interview. Ask open ended questions. Rather than asking if someone was good at customer service, ask, “How was this candidate when it came to customer service?” Follow up by asking for examples of how their customer service was good.
To Speak Or Not To Speak
When it comes to providing references on your former employees, consider giving out more information than just the basic facts—especially when it comes to good employees. Restrictive reference policies can sometimes hurt good employees because potential employers may have a hard time verifying what appears to be a glowing work history.
Make the decision that works best for your company when it comes to deciding what type of reference policy to create. Consider providing a few well documented and supported points about a former employee. When providing references for former employees applying to businesses you work closely with, be helpful by giving them enough information to make a good decision. Doing so will increase the chances they will be generous the next time you call to check a reference.