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Creative and Compliant Ways to Check References

A woman is talking on the phone while sitting at a desk.

​Reference checking is a necessary evil of the hiring process, but it's fraught with challenges. The references that candidates provide can be overly biased toward the applicant. But searching beyond those references can lead to potential risk for the employer. And company policies often limit to salary and dates of service the information HR representatives, managers and others can share about a former employee.

There are ways, however, that reference checkers can creatively and compliantly gather meaningful information to help employers make informed hiring decisions.

[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect]

'Backdoor' References

"Backdoor" references are references the candidate did not directly provide. While reference checkers are not prohibited from contacting people not specifically named as references by the candidate, there are a couple of important points employers must keep in mind:

  • Candidates should have given permission, generally, for reference checking to be conducted.
  • Reference checkers should not reach out to anyone the candidate has expressly asked not be contacted.
  • Reference checkers should not contact references from a candidate's current employer without express permission.

HR can and should seek additional recommendations as reference checks are conducted. For instance, when speaking with a candidate's former manager, you might ask, "Is there anyone else you would recommend I speak with?" Or you may have contacts at a candidate's former employer; unless the candidate has expressly prohibited it, you're free to reach out to get perspectives from these contacts.

Regardless of how well you know a potential reference or how deep you dig, many references are hesitant to be too forthcoming about a candidate who may not have a stellar job history. This is where some creative communication techniques may come into play.

Make the Candidate Part of the Process

Doren Barak, president and lead consultant with FocusHR, a human resources consulting firm in Toronto, uses a two-step process to ferret out critical information about a candidate's strengths and potential weaknesses, starting with the candidate interview. "With the reference process in mind, I ask questions that open the candidate up to share potential red flags that I then probe in reference checks," Barak said.

For example, she might ask a candidate, "Imagine I call your manager and ask for feedback on you. I'd ask for the good, the bad and the ugly. What would I hear from your manager?"

Barak will then keep prodding until she's gathered relevant information. If the candidate isn't immediately forthcoming, she might circle back to the question, perhaps reframing to focus on a previous manager.

This candidate input is valuable to the reference-checking process, she said. "You now have concrete information to probe on."

For instance, she might say to a reference, "In the interview, the candidate shared that X and Y were not strengths or were concerns or trouble areas. Could you elaborate on that?"

"You'd be surprised by how openly references discuss something negative if they don't have to reveal it themselves," she said. "It makes it easy for them."

Best Practices

Camden Rendon, talent acquisition manager with The 20, an IT services firm in Plano, Texas, said she will often ask references for an example of how a candidate went above and beyond the requirements of the job. "If they can easily come up with something, I know that this candidate probably does it pretty frequently. If they can't come up with anything, I wonder how strong [the candidate's] work ethic really is," she said.

Reference checkers "need to be able to extract the information that isn't being said and read between the lines," said Mike Sheety, director of ThatShirt, a customized-apparel company in Ontario, Canada. "You need to listen to what is and isn't being said. 'I can't recall' and minimal responses can be a bad sign, as it either means the reference doesn't have anything good to say or they don't remember, and the potential hire just flows with the crowd."

Sheety advised reference checkers not to accept general responses, such as, "She was a great employee." That doesn't provide enough specific information. Ask questions to elaborate. Sheety suggested asking, "Why was she so great?" or "How do you track your employees' success?"

In addition to carefully evaluating responses, reference checkers should be alert to what is not being said.

"One of the first things I notice is how quickly and willing a reference is to talk to me," Rendon said. "If I have to leave a message, I get wary if I don't hear back. If someone offers to be a reference for someone, they should be ready and willing to chat about their experience working with that person."

Finally, Sheety suggested, "continue reference checking until all the information you have gathered is saying the same thing." Once you reach that level of consistency, you can be confident that you've got an accurate sense of a candidate's traits.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.


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