Renew Your Commitment to References

by Sandy Bundy

Do you check employment references before hiring a new employee? Whats that, you say? You dont? Yikes! Consider this for an early New Years resolution: make it a habit to check references before offering the job. Why? Because youll learn invaluable information about your potential employee.

Reference checking made easy!
You may have avoided checking references in the past because you didnt feel comfortable doing it or you may not have known what to ask. Worry no more! Here are some easy steps to follow:

  • Ask a reference any question related to the work the applicant was doing previously (hard skills), or how they interacted with others (soft skills).
  • As long as the question is job related, you may ask it.
  • Avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or no engage the reference in some discussion (see sample questions to follow).
  • Ask any questions regarding the work youre planning to have the employee do youre asking the reference for their opinion in this case, as opposed to facts; however, they will base their answers on the history they experienced with the employee.
  • Ask questions about things that may have worried you about the applicant when you interviewed him or her.

Following are some example questions for you to work with:

  • Tell me how Sally communicates with the customers to make them feel comfortable.
  • What responsibilities did Susie have in working with cash? To what level did you trust her?
  • Bill seemed hesitant when I asked him about balancing his till, what can you tell me about that?
  • What do you think Aaron would do if a customer came in who was in a confrontational mood?
  • In what ways did Alice show her creativity?
  • I am concerned about Marys talkativeness, how did that impact her work?
  • What is Jills greatest strength?
  • What is Marks greatest area of concern (or weakness) regarding the position as I have described it to you?

That was relatively easy, so whats the worry about checking references? Its the questions youre NOT supposed to ask. Those are the non work-related questions: questions about religion, marital status, family status, race, disabilities, whether theyre pregnant, whether theyve filed workers compensation claims, etc. You MAY ask about attendance records, but you MAY NOT ask about the reasons for absences.

How many references should I ask for? As many as you want. I usually try to check three. Why? Because if one of them is not too flattering and two of them are very flattering, I suspect there was a personality clash with the person who gave a negative reference. If there are two negative references, Im on alert to check out other applicants.

What if the references wont answer my questions? There are usually two reasons for this: 1) The employee may have had a problem at the company, or 2) The organization youre calling has a policy not to give out references.

More and more companies are choosing not to give references due to fear of lawsuits. You can share this information with the applicant and maybe they can find another reference for you, or you can ask the company if the employee is subject to rehire and see what they say.

What types of people should I call in order to get an employment reference? I like to call managers, supervisors, lead people, co-workers, people who reported to your applicant anyone who may be able to tell me about this persons performance, behavior, trustworthiness, etc.

Do I really have to check if I know the person personally, or am related? I would. Your friend or sister-in-law might act one way around you and quite another way in a professional environment. Get another perspectiveoften, were really too close to the person to make a good judgment call.

What if the applicant has no previous work experience? Most people have done some type of work such as babysitting, volunteer work, or work in their community. If they havent done any of that, see if you can talk to one of their teachers from school, or a neighbor who knows them or an adult friend of the family.

How can I read between the lines with what the reference is telling me? If the reference is being vague and not answering your questions directly, they may be avoiding telling you something. If theres hesitation in their voice, they may be battling with whether or not to share something with you. You may want to ask them more questions to see if you can get to the bottom of their concern. I even say directly, It sounds like youre struggling with this answer, was there a problem with Sallys performance?

Do I need to share the reference results with the applicant? No. This information is only for you and you do not need to share it with the applicant.

In the end, the biggest piece of advice I can give you is to make a point of checking your references. I know were all busybut spending time checking references now will save you time in the long run. I know Ive never been sorry that I checked!