Many small business owners treat reference checks as a mere formality, one negligible step in the process of hiring a new employee. But using a reference to only verify employment dates and titles can rob you of valuable information that might prove critical when the time comes to make your job-hire decision.
At the most fundamental level, a thorough reference check protects you against some applicants’ tendency to embellish details about their past employment. It also helps to forecast whether or not the applicant will turn out to be a productive member of the team.
Don’t put it off. Employers often decide to hire an individual and then do a cursory check of references. Not only do you risk the possibility of encountering unpleasant surprises, but if you’ve already made a decision, chances are that when you talk to a reference, you’ll only hear what validates that decision.
Favor facts over opinions. The opinions of a former employer or colleague are nice to hear, but facts are a much better predictor of future behavior. Ask for actual numbers that measure results, such as sales volume, profit levels generated, new systems put in place, and so on. Also, don’t neglect to double-check college degrees, certifications and licenses, just to make sure the candidate is being honest about his or her educational background.
Ask the right questions. This is critically important, since the whole purpose of the reference check is to obtain useful information. The best questions are open-ended—questions that offer potential insights into a person’s make-up, work ethic, and track record. (They also offset a reference’s inclination to say only positive things about the applicant.)
Effective open-ended questions include:
- What are the candidate’s strengths?
- How did the candidate contribute to the success of your business?
- What are two or three areas in which the candidate might improve?
- Given the opportunity, would you hire this person again?
Be prepared for the unexpected answer. You may come across a reference who is reluctant to say much about the candidate, or who actually offers an unfavorable perspective. In this case, try to dig a bit deeper and find out why the reference has provided such an answer.
Avoid “danger areas.” Questions related to a candidate’s, age, race, ethnicity, or religion, should be avoided at all times. They likely have nothing to do with the person’s qualifications and they present legal risks in regard to discrimination violations. Be sure to document all discussions with references.
Ask references for additional references. If you feel that you’re not getting all the information you need, don’t hesitate to ask the reference to suggest another person who has experience with the applicant. This offers the option of better understanding how well the applicant is qualified for the open position.