Reference checks can be one of the most valuable tools for making an informed hiring decision — but as you know, it’s often tough to learn anything from a contact besides employment dates, titles and salaries. How can you convince reluctant references to open up?
Here are some strategies experts recommend:
- Keep it conversational. As with any discussion, it’s important to warm up the reference before asking him or her to divulge any information. You can start the conversation by talking about your company and the position you’re filling. Mentioning that the candidate spoke favorably about the reference could also get the ball rolling. Another tip: Avoid using the word “reference,” which raises immediate red flags.
- Try a manager-to-manager talk. HR often does all the reference-checking to avoid potential legal issues. But some companies say they get better results if the hiring manager calls the candidate’s former supervisor directly. Managers have a better idea of what questions to ask for each position, and the reference may be more open when talking to a fellow supervisor, rather than someone from HR.
- Have candidates sign a waiver. The main reason companies withhold information about former employees: They’re afraid of being sued for giving negative comments. One tool that can help: a waiver signed by candidates giving you permission to ask about their history. Be prepared to fax a copy to the other employer. Some companies have a policy against providing any information without one.
- Tell the reference what the candidate said. Open-ended questions about a candidate’s performance often aren’t received well. Instead, have references verify or deny what candidates already told you. During the interview, ask what candidates think their references will say. Then, repeat that back to the reference and ask if it rings true (and why or why not).
- Read between the lines. Many managers are reluctant to say anything negative about a former employee — but neutral statements might indicate that there’s a problem. That’s why it’s important to listen for lukewarm responses and ask probing questions to find out why the reference isn’t saying something positive.
What strategies have you tried to get valuable information from reference checks? Share your experience in the comments section below.