How — and Why — to Check References

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Checking references and considering other third-party observations are useful and necessary components of the hiring process.

But getting a candid reference from an employer is tougher than ever these days. Because employers know that saying too much or too little can have legal consequences, they are increasingly wary of being specific about past employees and their work histories when you try to check references.

Some companies have been sued for not disclosing enough information about former workers, while others have paid enormous settlements because they provided a negative job reference check — whether true or false. The job reference check isn't quite as simple as it used to be.

Make checking references a priority

Because of these difficulties, rushing through the process of checking references — or bypassing it altogether — in order to make a quick hire may be tempting to small businesses, especially those in danger of losing candidates to another firm. Even so, getting reliable information from a former supervisor is an important step to take before bringing someone on board.

Job reference check tips

Here are some tips on how to handle the often difficult process of checking references:

Let the candidate know you check references

Be clear with candidates at the outset of the interviewing process that your company will be checking their references.

Checking references is perfectly legal as long as the information being verified is job-related and does not violate discrimination laws. Informing applicants that you're checking references usually helps ensure that the answers they give you during the interview are truthful.

Don't delegate it

If the employee will report directly to you, you should perform the job reference check. No matter how thorough a delegate or deputy may be, the hiring manager will have corollary questions that may not occur to others.

Also, calling someone at your same level may establish greater camaraderie that will prompt a more honest and detailed reference. If that weren't enough, checking references yourself is a great way to gain insight from a former supervisor on how to best manage the individual.

Use responses received while interviewing

Asking candidates during the job interview what their former employers are likely to say about them can provide you with a good starting point. If you can actually get the former employer to talk openly, chances are that will make things easier when you check references.

You can start out by saying something such as, "Joe tells me that you think he was an awesome employee" and have the employer take it from there. You may not get a totally frank answer, but you can get valuable comments and insights. After all, the candidate must assume that you're going to check out the answers.

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