Conducting Reference Checks in China



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).


Why Conduct Reference Checks |



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 latter
are 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.



How to Evaluate Candidates After an Interview


The importance of structuring the evaluation process, based on the insights gathered, is often overlooked.


A lot of energy and time is invested in the previous recruitment stages – mostly the design and conduct of the interview – but somehow the digestion and processing of that information are perceived as easier tasks. This perception causes a certain loosening on the quality standards recruiters apply to themselves when it comes to evaluation.


“Do not make your mind on whether a candidate is fit for the role during the interview”

In this brief practical guide, 
we share some advice and reconnect with previous shared knowledge that, hopefully, will keep you on a straight path in your recruitment process. 


Start with your notes

For starters, do not make your mind on whether a candidate is fit for the role during the interview. 
Remember the most common biases you may fall prey. It is not easy to overcome them on the spot. Your initial impressions from the candidate are mediated by those biases, so it is important you do not turn your initial judgments into a rejection/non-rejection decision.


You should review your notes (see tips for taking notes here) and, as objectively as possible, evaluate all the information available. This you can only do once the interview is over. It is then that you have the time to look at the whole picture from a more removed, detached perspective.



The ORCE process

To contextualize the evaluating and rating process it is time now to introduce yet another acronym: ORCE. It stands for Observe, Record, Classify and Evaluate. (1) The acronym serves as a label to represent a logical step-by-step process that here we are applying for recruitment purposes.


So far, what we have been doing during the interview has been to observe and record. What is left, after the interview, is to classify and evaluate using the framework we have agreed upon: the scoring key.

When classifying you must pair the information you 
collected with the job requirements. That means to examine the candidate’s behaviors against the required competencies for the role. To be effective at that, you must be familiar with the competencies and the behavioral indicators. Refer again to our guide on creating a scoring key and check for the proposed Interview Assessment Template.

Check also for objections that indicate the candidate does not meet some of the requirements. For example, let’s say the role requires extensive traveling and the candidate expresses she is open to travel but for shorter periods of time. In this case, the candidate meets the requirement to a certain extent. The fact that traveling schedule could be modulated later to better suit the candidate’s needs does not mean that you can use the initial objections to reject that candidate if, all other things equal, you have another applicant who made clear during the interview that intensive traveling was not an impediment or even regarded it as a positive.

To rate the candidates, use the scoring key that was defined when designing the interview. If back then some competencies were deemed more important than others, you will now use different weighted scales to evaluate the candidate’s answers. You do this for all interviewed job applicants and at the end of the process, you will be left (ideally) with a short-list of suitable, strong candidates.


How to Conduct Recruitment Interviews


Stage 1. Opening


Present yourself by name and function. Put the candidates at ease. Make sure the candidates are comfortable. Offer them coffee, tea or water.


The goal here is to eliminate barriers that prevent the candidates from presenting themselves as truthful as possible. This warming up process should take somewhere around five to eight minutes since in China the welcoming is perceived as of higher importance due to Chinese culture-specific behavior.


Brief the candidates. Explain how the interview is going to look like, how long it might take. Tell the candidates they should focus on critical facts when answering. Let them also know that you will be taking notes. (1)



Stage 2. Introductory questions: Review resume & assess motivation


Go through any gaps in the CV that you had previously spotted when preparing for the interview.


Learn about the candidates’ motivation for the role. “What are you looking for in this job?” It is an excellent opportunity to understand if the candidates are looking for growth, or if they are achievers and feel their current jobs are not serving that goal anymore. It allows you to understand if the candidates are running away from a job that is bad or if they are looking for something better.


Whatever the intrinsic motivation of the candidates, this is a question better addressed at the beginning of the interview. If asked at the end, you would most likely obtain an answer conditioned by the information elicited by the candidates during the interview. That is, an answer modulated to fit into the job requirements rather than the underlying factors that fuel motivation in the job applicants. Note this is the reverse technique than the one used in quantitative research when the questioning aims to build models that can explain a variable (let’s say the overall satisfaction with a job) as a function of other inputs or variables. By asking first about satisfaction with several job-related items (with compensation level, with job managers, or with the level of collaboration among team members) the overall job satisfaction will be influenced by the retrieval of the previous “partial satisfactions”. The seminal work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky synthesized in Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, presents a very elegant example. In a survey to students, the researchers asked first how happy the students had been recently. Following that question, they asked them how many dates they took in the past month. A second group of students was asked the same questions, but in reverse other. In the first case no correlation was found between the two answers; in the second, the correlation was 0.66, “as high as correlations between psychological measures can get”. (2) By bringing up memories of their recent dating life students were happier the more dates they had.



Stage 3. Main body of the interview


Focus on what is relevant, by not losing sight of the competencies that are relevant for the position and follow the questions you had designed, always giving priority to open-ended questions.


No statutory law exists regarding conducting interviews in China. You may pose questions on salary level as well as other personal questions with regards to age and marital status, but interviewees have the right to not disclose such information. We do not recommend asking questions that are irrelevant to the requirements of the job at hand (read more here).



“Do not accept answers that are not relevant, superficial or straight to the point. Get facts and specific details about the candidate’s accomplishments”



If required, guide the candidates


Do not accept answers that are not relevant, superficial or straight to the point. Get facts and specific details about the candidate’s accomplishments.


When necessary, you will have to guide the candidates to stay on course but being mindful of doing it in a neutral way. Avoid using follow-up questions that already suggest a response, whether positive or negative. Whenever the candidates are elaborating on a situation that appears to be insignificant, going into examples that are too far away in time, failing to conclude on what was the outcome, or it is not clear what was their role you will have to intervene:


  • Request another example, something that is more spot-on with regards the initial question (do so politely).
  • Request an example from the candidates´ most recent jobs.
  • Ask directly about the result.
  • Ask what is it that the candidates did in that situation: “What was exactly your role?”


Major accomplishments/challenges and CAR sequencing


The interview should contain a balance between questions that look for evidence about the candidates’ past achievements (i.e., inspirational leadership) and questions that look for evidence on how the candidates fared when confronted with challenges (i.e., integrity and ethics).


Additionally, the questions should be staged in such a way that allows the candidates to give evidence of context, action, and results (CAR). For more on the CAR approach see here.


Finally, remember to use in case you had elaborated them previously when working on the scoring key, the positive/negative points (i.e., positive: uses effective strategies; negative: tries unsuccessfully to fix the situation by herself).



“Many Chinese candidates are observed to have high expectations, as many see their peers quickly move up the corporate ladder and expect that the same should happen to them”


Stage 4. Closing


Besides the fact that you should have been keeping track of time, you can close the interview effectively once you have gathered the information you had previously established as necessary (See Figure 1). Did you tell the candidates about the role and its growth opportunities? Are the gaps in the candidates’ CVs accounted for? Have you been through all the questions with regards the competencies? It is ok to backtrack a bit if you realize that you missed something. (3)



Closing the Interview |


If you have it all covered it is now the time to allow the candidates to ask questions. These questions are a helpful complement to the information you gathered at the beginning regarding the candidates’ motivation. 


The type of questions the candidates ask will indicate interest. If the questions revolve around the number of days of paid-leave, compensation or overtime, then it sends a different signal that if they are about the company’s mission, the team background or the projected growth of the business.


Many Chinese candidates are observed to have high expectations, as many see their peers quickly move up the corporate ladder and expect that the same should happen to them. Despite current signs of an economic slowdown in China, Chinese employees’ salary growth expectations rank among the highest in the world. The biggest concerns of candidates are salary, benefits, and career development. Now is a good opportunity to manage candidate expectations.


It is advisable that you inquire about their availability. When could they start? Or ask if they see this role as the next step in their career. Both questions invite for answers that will show to what extent they are interested.


Another (potential) benefit from taking questions from the candidates is that it might uncover concerns or highlight positives with regards the job that were not considered when designing the job communication materials, thus giving very valuable insights on how to remodel those.


Finally, inform the candidates what happens next: when will they hear back from you, and if there are going to be other interviews. Give the candidates your business card, to reach out to you if need be. Leave it in a positive note but be mindful not to raise any expectations.



Stage 5. Follow up


Both the candidates and you have invested a sizable amount of time in the process. Whether their gets or not the job – and especially if they do not – you want to leave a good impression of yourself and your company.


First, think about the long-term impact in your employer branding if you handle properly interview rejections: the candidates sure will appreciate a proper follow-up, and you will be lowering the risk of them criticizing you or your organization – something relatively easy to do with the vast array of social media platforms currently available. If yours is not a well-established employer brand, not following up stacks up against the path to building one. And even if your organization is a well-established player, not handling carefully the candidates’ experience in a systematic way might tarnish that reputation. (4)


Second, no matter if you are an in-house or an external recruiter, the candidates are a potential referral source, and they might be the right profile for a future opening. They might even become a prospective client, for all you know.


Give the candidates a phone call and tell them why they did not get the job: be as truthful and honest as possible. In this respect, beware of comments that could be discriminatory (i.e., “we were hoping to find someone that already has children”). You might want to check with HR and Legal, so you don’t leave yourself exposed. Avoid mentioning the experience and qualifications of other applicants.


After that, you can send an email to the candidates, so they have a notice of rejection. Keep the email short – don’t elaborate too much – and stick to the same provisions we mentioned above for the phone call. Most applicant tracking systems (ATS) have rejection templates, so this won’t take too much time to set up, but make sure you adapt them for each candidate, so the email feels personal (here you can make good use of your interview notes).


Finally, to nurture the relationship for future job openings or other opportunities keep in regular contact with the candidates (once every six months should suffice).



Prepare to Interview your Candidates


“Prepare, prepare, prepare. When the pressure is on, you don’t rise to the occasion; you fall to your highest level of preparation”

Chris Voss. Never Split the Difference


In previous practical guides, we discussed the design of interview questions, how to create a scoring key to rate interviewees. We have also shared some tips on how to conduct interviews and the biases you should be aware of.


In this piece, we are going to provide a few more guidelines about the interview process: how to prepare for it and recommendations about taking notes during the interview, so you can get the most bang for your time and effort.



Prepare for the interview


Prior to the interview itself, you should:


A) Ensure the candidate meets the minimum requirements for the position. That means a thorough read of the resumé, application form, cover letter or other relevant materials.


  • Is all the relevant information provided by the candidate in these materials?
  • Are there any gaps in the dates provided for past job experiences/academic years? If so, make sure you address them in the interview.
  • Do previous work experiences appear to be relevant?
  • Have management positions been held (if required for the role you are recruiting for)?


B) Check the interview questions. You already have a clear understanding of the questions you will ask, based on the required competencies; you also have a list of follow-up or probing questions, as well as a list of positive/negative points to check for during the interview.


C) Make sure you have the information or gathered the materials that will be presented to the candidate during the interview: information about the project or department you are hiring for, organizational charts, information about the company, conditions of employment and benefits, etc. It is highly advisable that all those materials are available in Chinese or bilingual (Chinese and, usually, English).




Why and how you should take notes during the interview


Taking detailed and regular notes of observable behaviors and verbal responses during the interview is crucial. Documenting your learnings about the candidate during the interview will support you later to make your evaluation as objective as possible. See Figure 1 with a few tips on how to go about taking notes.



Tips for Taking Notes During Your Interview |


Taking notes during the interview will reduce the cognitive effort and memory decay that would entail retrieving those observations once the interview is concluded when you are most likely to miss/not recall important information or remember it in a distorted way. Attribution or stereotyping biases may influence the subsequent retrieval of information (more about biases here).



“Focus solely on what is verbally said or observed behaviors (non-verbal cues). The challenge here is to avoid taking notes based on subjective impressions or opinions”



Taking notes is also helpful to avoid primacy and recency effects: the tendency to better remember information provided at the beginning and the ending of the interview, at the expense of potentially valuable information supplied during the lengthier middle. (1)


In addition, notes will help produce and justify a candidate’s rating and, overall, reduce variance (disagreement) across evaluations of several candidates.


Notes should be taken in the vicinity of the interview question/s where verbal cues or behaviors took place. That is, using a standardized form


Focus solely on what is verbally said or observed behaviors (non-verbal cues). The challenge here is to avoid taking notes based on subjective impressions or opinions. Don’t write down impressions that are not backed-up by job-related facts or use subjective language. You can take a moment after the interview to elaborate on your notes and to make sure they are as fact-based as possible. An example of a subjective note is “the candidate is very unstructured in her answers”. One way to put it objectively could be to pair the observed behavior with required competencies: “The role requires organization and prioritizing skills. The candidate did not display the ability to present arguments in a structured and concise manner”.


It is advisable to inform the candidate at the beginning of the interview that you will be taking notes. Doing so not only demonstrates an interest in the candidate but might as well buy you some credit later if you struggle to strike a balance between note-taking and active listening (keeping eye contact and engaging in the conversation).





How to Create a Scoring Key to Rate Interviews


As we pointed out in a previous piece on how to design interview questions, competency-based interviews (CBI) – or structured interviews, in general – require interviewers have a set of scoring keys, or a rating scale, to be able to evaluate every candidate’s competency as objective as possible.


It is of vital importance that all interviewers share the same scale. The first step is to establish one proficiency-level scale for all competencies (i.e., a range from 0 to 4, or a range from 0 to 6; where 0 indicates no proficiency at all and 4 or 6 the highest proficiency level possible).


After deciding about the scale then it is time to define each of the proficiency-levels. For instance, here we present a 5-scale evaluation: excellent, good, average, poor, and no evidence. See Figure 1 for more detail:


An Example of Rating Scales for Job Interviews |



Other potential scales could look like:


A) Far exceeds requirements (Score 4), Exceeds requirements (3), Meets requirements (2), Less than requirements (1), Misses requirements (0).


B) Expert (Score 5), Advanced (4), Intermediate (3), Basic (2), Awareness (1), Not Aware (0).


“More than the actual values of the scale itself, what is relevant is that all competencies are measured using the same scale and that all interviewers apply the same rating criteria”


Rather than the specific range and labels that we want to assign to the scales, which is more or less a question of organizational preferences, what is relevant is that all competencies are measured using the same scale and that all interviewers apply the same criteria.


Additionally, before the interview, we might want to determine which sort of answers, for each question, would score positive points and which would count as negative scores.


Let’s take the competency Proving solving skills and its formulation into the following question: “Describe a situation in which you had to address a problem whose cause was not clear to the organization.” The positive and negative points could be, for this example:


Positive: recognizes her limitations, uses effective strategies, demonstrates a constructive approach towards the issue, takes ownership.


Negative: tries unsuccessfully to fix the situation by herself, uses inappropriate strategies, does not reframe the problem as a challenge, does not take ownership.


The positive/negative points might help us better assess interviewees. Imagine for instance the case where two candidates are given the same score for a specific question: the observation of positive/negative points can help to decide which candidate fared best.


At this stage we should have for each competency: the specific question we will use in the interview together with any follow-up or probing question to clarify either context, action or results (see practical guide How to Design Interview Questions), the scoring key, and the positive and negative points. With all these pieces we are in the position to put together a question-assessment template (see Figure 2).

Question Assessment Template |


Finally, if we consider that one competency, or a set of competencies, is more relevant than other/s, then competencies might also be assigned a specific weight. For example, given the particular role we are selecting for, we might conclude that Judgment is more relevant than the others because the position requires a great deal of experience in a cross-cultural environment. We could, therefore, determine that this competency 50% more relevant than the others in the interview.


Figure 3 represents an example of an Interview Assessment template, with a summary of all the scores from the candidate, the different weights to each competency (optional), and the overall score for the interview.


Interview Assessment Template |