You have sifted through candidates, conducted interview after interview, and are ready to make an offer (or maybe you’ve already made one).

The only thing on the to-do list is the reference check.

You might be tempted to skip reference checks, make one or two calls, or assign the task to an administrative person. But reference checks can reveal valuable information about a job candidate that can help you make better hiring choices. This is no time to take shortcuts.

Instead, understand the importance of reference checks and follow these best practices.

When to ask for and check references

Some organizations ask for references during the initial application, some wait until later. Either one is fine. If a candidate refuses to give references, or says they won’t give references until a job offer is made, that’s a huge red flag.

If you don’t check references until after a job offer is made, the offer should be contingent based on what the reference checks reveal.

Often, applicants may ask that their current manager or workplace not be contacted to keep their job search private. That’s understandable, and not necessarily a red flag. If they’ve been at their current job for years, though, that may be the best source for current information. Ask for references from a former manager who’s no longer at that organization or someone else who can speak about the applicant’s current hard and soft skills.

Don’t contact the applicant’s current employer if they’ve asked you not to; you could jeopardize someone’s job. And if you ask for additional references beyond the ones they’ve initially provided, make your request and get the response in writing. That step can avoid potential misunderstandings later.

For entry-level positions, applicants may not have much job experience. In such cases, ask for references from teachers, volunteer activities, or anyone else who can speak to an applicant’s work ethic and character.

If possible, avoid references who can’t speak knowledgeably about an applicant’s skills, such as people from HR. You want to ask detailed questions about someone’s skills and attitude (more on that below). And, in many cases, HR will only verify a person’s employment dates and mention whether a person is eligible for rehire.

How to do a reference check (and who should do it)

In many organizations, HR conducts reference checks. That can be a mistake.

Ideally, the person who will be directly managing the new hire should contact the applicant’s references. That person will be able to ask about skillsets and have follow-up questions that someone else in the organization might not.

Another mistake some organizations make is conducting reference checks by email or through an automated system. When asking questions about a potential hire’s skills and attitude, you not only want to hear the answer, but also the tone of voice. Does the person enthusiastically endorse someone’s skills or hesitate? You want to hear that.

One excellent strategy when checking references is to ask the reference to rank the applicant’s specific skills on a scale of 1-10. If the answer isn’t 10, ask why. No applicant is perfect, so don’t reject anyone who doesn’t score 10s across the board. But if certain skills are critical to the role and the person’s current manager gives lower scores in those areas, you need to decide if that’s a deal breaker—or if the applicant can be trained or coached to strengthen those skills.

Besides asking about specific skills, try to get a sense of how the applicant handles the day-to-day in the workplace. Ask references how the applicant is best managed, how they work with others, whether they’re team leaders or followers. If certain values, such as integrity or reliability, are important in your organization, make that a question. But don’t ask, “Does this person have integrity?” Ask, “How far would you trust this person?” “Have you ever questioned whether they did or didn’t do something?” “How well do they exemplify your organization’s values?”

Questions that can lead to liability

Don’t ever ask about anything that has to do with the person’s race, religion, gender identity—anything that could be considered discriminatory. Even a seemingly innocent comment, such as, “I bet you were jealous of their tan” if the applicant recently returned from a beach vacation, can be construed as a sneaky way to discover someone’s race.

To avoid liability, anyone doing reference checks should be professionally trained about what they can and cannot ask.

Reference checks are doubly important now

Because of COVID-19, it’s really difficult to interview people face to face, and many organizations don’t. That makes reference checks doubly important. Many things you may not notice in a remote interview can be revealed when checking references.

The Lindenberger Group helps organizations learn to do more effective reference checks while avoiding potential liability. For more information or to discuss your HR needs, please contact us at 609-730-1049 or send us an email.