Check It!

Reference checking in its simple form is a conversation you have with an employer about the candidate you are seeking to employ.  You prepare questions that guide the flow of conversation and allow you to validate the candidate with each referee (examples are provided below).  It doesn’t mean you can’t go off script, and often taking the lead from the referees’ comments can provide good quality feedback.  These questions are designed to assist you in gaining further insight into the capabilities, performance, motivations of the candidate and to validate the information presented to you during the candidates’ interview.  It is not a process to ‘catch out’ a candidate (though this can be a by-product of the reference checking process).

 Referee details are provided in good faith by the candidate. Reference checks fall under privacy laws and because of this a record of the reference must be kept by your organisation and must be made available to the candidate if they want to access that information. 

 Here are five keys to a successful reference check.

1.  Be prepared
BEFORE you commence reference checking talk to your candidate and work through each of the referee details they have provided you. Getting prior written consent from the candidate that you want to talk to their previous employers kick starts this process. When you have this consent you are free to ask the candidate questions like, ‘How long was this person your manager? Did you report directly to them? Are they aware they are a referee for you?’ (You may be surprised how many candidates do not ask a previous manager to be a referee!!).  Ask the candidate what they think the referee will say about them.  This pre-work will ensure a smoother conversation for you. 

2.  No Surprises!
It can set the call off on the wrong foot if you call a referee to find they have no idea what you are calling about or that they were listed as a referee. To avoid this, coach the candidate to ask permission from the referee and to prepare the referee for your call, for example ask the candidate to call their referee and say something like:-

“Damien Jones a HR manager from ACME consulting will be calling you in the next couple of days for a reference check. The roll I have applied for is a Senior Sales Manager in their business development team and they want to talk to you about the period of time I worked for you at Global consulting.”

3. Take your time
In your enthusiasm to complete the process and hopefully offer your candidate the role, it is tempting to want to push quickly through this part of the process.  But this part of the process conducted in haste could result in months of work due to a ‘bad hire’.  Your role, as you perform the reference check is to frame up the conversation and let them know approximately how long it will take, make sure you state confidentiality clauses, maintain control of the conversation, stay on point and use this process as a tool to clarify any issues or niggling doubts or hunches you have. Most importantly take down a record of the details of the conversation.  We suggest reference checking be completed by the manager with whom the person will report rather than HR so that you can get first hand feedback from previous managers.

4.  Clients, Suppliers, other Colleagues
Sometimes through this process you won’t feel you are ‘hitting the mark’, you might feel the referee supplied to you is bias or they weren’t able to give you the insight you’re after. This could be because they only worked with the candidate for a short period of time or remotely.  In this instance you might be best to seek information on your candidates’ performance by talking to clients, suppliers or other colleagues of the candidate.  Due to privacy laws you MUST seek the permission of the candidate and again follow points 1 &2.

5. CHECK and double check
Finally check and double check that the referee is who they say they are. There have been cases where even CEO’s, of large well known organisations have provided false information about a referee! 

Following privacy laws, there is not much you can do here except to ask the candidate for both a mobile number and a landline of the referee.

If you have the name of the company where the referee is working rather than calling them directly call their main switch and ask for them by name and title for example, ‘I am calling to speak with Andrea Hamlet – Accounts Payable Manager, I have a number for her being xxxx-xxxx is this correct?.

Ultimately the reference checking process is another tool at your disposal to decide if your candidate is one of ‘best-fit’ for your role and organisation.  The process is guided by privacy laws and confidentiality principles so stick within these guidelines and you will be able to make a decision with confidence.

Below are sample references checking questions:


  1. Can you describe a situation where ‘X’ came to you because they found it difficult to manage. What was the situation, how did they/you handle it and what was the outcome.
  1. How would you rate ‘X’ ability to work in a team using a scale from 1-10 with 1 being poor and 10 excellent?  Given the gap what would they need to do differently?
  2. Was ‘X’ able to work independently?
  3. Was ‘X’ able to work to a deadline?  Can you give me an example of a time they missed a deadline how did they manage their communication?
  4. How did ‘X’ manage competing objectives?  Can you provide me with a relevant example and describe how they managed the situation?


  1. Can you describe your organisation/team culture – did ‘X’ work well in that environment?
  2. Our culture is …… how do you think ‘X’ would work in this environment
  3. How did ‘X’ handle feedback, both positive and negative?
  4. Can you describe for me the behaviour of ‘X’ when under pressure?
  5. Can you describe for me the behaviour when ‘X’ did not get along with a team member?


  1. If given the opportunity would you re-employ ‘X’? Why or why not?
  2. Ask about sick leave / personal days (i.e. did they take over the standard amount).
  3. How would you rate the performance of ‘X’ against their KPIs/objectives 1-10
  4. Did you have to performance counsel them in their role
  5. What were/are their strengths and areas for improvement in the role?


  1. To the best of your knowledge can you tell me why ‘X’ left the organisation?
  2. What kind of activities motivated ‘X’?
  3. Why might ‘X’ be seeking a job change now?
  4. How did you motivate to get the best out of ‘X’?
  5. Is there anything you wish to advise that has not been included in this reference check?

 Reference checking is just part of the recruitment process and ensuring you select the right person the first time can save your company valuable time and money.  In our People Management Program, Happening People can custom design the Recruitment Process to suit your company needs.

 We welcome your call to discuss.  


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