When they are executed properly, reference checks help to clarify or add new valuable data into the recruitment process. Reference checks are useful to reduce the risk of hiring a candidate who might not be suited for your company’s culture (1), despite the candidate’s great performance during the interview. From interviews with the candidates is hard to tell if, on a day-to-day basis, they will fit in the organization.
Additionally, reference checks will allow you to validate facts gathered during the interview process (see Figure 1). They might as well uncover some misrepresentations (i.e., a candidate exaggerating accomplishments in a specific set of relevant competencies).
It is important to collect information from references that have first-hand experience working together with the candidate. For this reason, you want to contact only with line managers, or supervisors. Colleagues are not a reference: they are most likely too emotionally attached to the candidate to be able to provide an objective perspective. You do not want to talk either to the HR staff, for they do not know the candidate on a regular working basis (they might only know her from a file). On the other hand, managers and supervisors can give you examples of the candidate’s competencies and skills and provide a better picture of how is to work with the candidate.
“It is important to collect information from references that have first-hand experience working together with the candidate”
The references must be recent (two to three years), for you want to gather facts about how your candidate is today, not about how she was ten years ago.
Avoid relying only on one source, to prevent feedback that is coming biased. You should ask the candidate to supply you with the contact information of two or three recent employers, and five or six supervisors or line managers. You ideally want to talk to at least four references, so you ask for additional contacts since it is likely you will not manage to connect with all.
Under the Provisions of the Employment Service and Employment Management in China, enacted in 2008, employers have the general obligation to keep employees’ personal data confidential and to obtain written consent before disclosing their personal data to third parties. (2) For this reason, it might be helpful that the candidate gets in touch with previous managers or supervisors to let them know you might be calling. This way, if the latterare expecting a call it is more likely they will be receptive to talk with you. If you have a signed statement from the candidate that gives you permission, you can send it as an attachment to the reference in an initial email to enquire for the best time to have a call. The attachment will reassure them. Note also that you must get authorization from the candidate to contact these references.
The time to do the reference checks depends on the level of responsibility of the role. In general, a good rule of thumb, is to conduct them once you have boiled down your recruitment efforts – after several rounds of interviews (phone, first-stage, second-stage interviews) – to a pool of promising candidates.
You do not want to leave the reference check to just one candidate, the one that you consider that is better suited at this stage. There is a risk the reference check will bring up some new information that leads you to reconsider your decision, and you might find yourself without alternative options. But most importantly, the stakes are high that once you have consciously decided that she is the ideal candidate, you won’t be able to backtrack that decision. You might not pick up objectively on the feedback provided by the references, falling prey to confirmation bias, dismissing facts that contradict the signals you have received from the candidate in the previous stages.
When you connect with the candidate’s reference, start with neutral questions to put her at ease so, later, she can feel more comfortable about answering more detailed competency-based questions. For example, ask her to confirm the period the candidate was under her supervision.
Ask questions as open-ended as possible, but do not be too general or ask questions that start with an opinion (i.e., “What do you think about the candidate leadership style?”). Instead, focus on gathering proof of the candidate’s level of proficiency for a given competency (i.e., “How would you describe the candidate’s leadership style? Could you give an example?”). Be sure to probe the reference for clarity. You do not want to be left with answers that are open to interpretation.
Avoid biased questions or questions that are designed to elicit negative answers (i.e. “Tell me about the candidate’s difficulties to handle tight deadlines”). Most references will feel uncomfortable giving bad feedback on a previous co-worker. Often you will have to infer negative feedback from what is not said. For example, if the reference is only willing to confirm that the candidate worked there for a certain period and her job title but nothing else, that is already not a very positive sign. Note, however, that some organizations might not allow for reference checks and open only to confirm name, job title, and tenure. You will need to clarify if that is the case.