How to improve your reference checking

Reference checking an applicant’s past can make today’s hiring
decision easier … but only if you do it right!

It’s been said that “the answers to all questions of the present
reside in the past.”

While not true for everything, there’s a lot of validity in this statement
when hiring new employees. It’s likely your employee of tomorrow has
already exhibited his or her work ethic and personal strengths and weaknesses
working for someone else. It follows that, to find out what those characteristics
are, all you have to do is ask.

Well, reference checking is not quite that simple. For one thing, in this
litigious age, former employers may be notably mum in answering your reference
checking questions for fear of facing a defamation lawsuit. Many will only
verify dates of employment and job title. But HR expert and author Arthur
R. Pell does suggest some reference checking strategies that you can put to

Make reference checking is a personal matter, not a matter for “Personnel”

First, Pell recommends talking to the candidate’s immediate supervisor,
not the HR department, which will only have what’s been officially recorded
about the applicant. Some of the most important impressions are more personal,
and therefore less likely to be written down for posterity.

Ask, Pell says, about the person’s duties, and explain to the prior
manager, while reference checking, how important these tasks are in the position
you are filling. You may very well get a comment about how well the person
performed the tasks in addition to a description of what they were.

Let your questions continue in a natural progression during the reference
checking process. Move from what the person did to his or her accomplishments
and how qualified the individual was to move up in the organization. Also,
don’t forget to ask about more mundane matters such as attendance. You’ll
also want to inquire in your reference checking as to why the employee and
employer parted ways.

A reference checking checklist

Pell suggests making a written checklist of questions before reference checking
to avoid getting so caught up in the conversation, you miss a vital area.
And to those past bosses who are reluctant to cite a candidate’s weakness,
Pell suggests asking if there are any areas in which the individual might
benefit from additional training. It’s a more positive way of asking
about a possibly negative trait.

Other HR professionals advise letting the candidate know definitively that
you will be doing reference checking right up front. If you do, he or she
might just voluntarily own up to something you’d never hear from a previous