The reference check: How to get useful, honest info

Reference Check: How to get useful, honest info

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?

The 5 best approaches

Here are some strategies experts recommend:

  • Keep it light. 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 email a copy to the other employer.
  • 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.
  • Read between the lines. Many managers are reluctant to say anything negative about a former employee – but neutral statements might indicate there’s a problem. That’s why it’s important to listen for lukewarm responses and ask probing follow-up questions to find out why the reference isn’t saying something positive.

Or ask for applicant’s help …

Finally, personnel consultant Mel Kleiman suggests you go to the source: the applicant. Tell applicants that some of the references are reluctant to talk, he says. Ask if they could give them permission to speak freely when you call. Sometimes that’s enough to get a real conversation going.

Rachel Mucha
Rachel writes about Human Resource management and has been a member of the HRMorning staff since 2017. She is a graduate of Ithaca College.