Avoid reference checking at your peril

The cost to businesses of a failed hire is all too obvious and the importance of rigorous reference checking cannot be underestimated. Today’s cynicism about just how candid references will prove to be should not deter potential employers from picking up the phone and asking searching questions of relevant individuals. At the very least, employers have a duty of care when providing a reference to give one which is true, accurate and fair and which doesn’t fail to mention anything significant. Who better to give us a good steer on the candidate we are about to offer than the manager who has had first-hand experience of them already?

First off, go in search of a referee who is relevant and press candidates who avoid putting you in touch with the employer who on paper looks most useful to you. If your candidate has just left employer X whom he worked with for 5 years but is giving you employer Y as a referee who he worked with for a few months way back, then ask why. This conversation in itself may be telling. Also get clarity on what the relationship is between the candidate and the suggested referee – is it an operational relationship or something more personal? Be prepared to get very little in the way of objectivity from referees whose relationship is purely personal.

Once you have identified the most relevant individuals, which may include peers as well as managers, aim to speak by telephone. Your conversations should be a blend of factual questions to verify the information on the candidate’s CV plus open questions to elicit more nuanced answers. Listen carefully to the answers given – there may be a subtext which you can identify and explore further. As much may be learnt by what is not said as what is. An ominous pause in response to questions such as “Would you re-employ this person?” may speak volumes.

Key questions are:

  • Confirmation of dates of employment, salary, job title
  • Clarification of the candidate’s responsibilities – do these tally with the CV ?
  • How would the referee describe the candidate’s work ethic ?
  • Why did the candidate leave and would the former employer re-employ them ?
  • How was the candidate perceived by their peers ?
  • Is there anything else that you should be made aware of ?


A useful tactic even at interview stage is to ask the candidate what their previous employer would cite as their biggest weakness. Knowing that this is something you will likely to be hearing first hand anyway leaves little wiggle room and hopefully makes for an honest and useful answer.

Taking the time to check references can have a hugely positive impact if potentially unsuitable candidates are spotted and weeded out of your recruitment process. If the references all stack up, however, good news – you are well on your way to successfully hiring a great candidate and can bask in the warm glow of success!

threesixty selection – Management & Executive Recruitment Practice. Specialist Search & Selection in Finance, Purchasing, Supply Chain, Manufacturing & Sales.

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