There are three parts to the hiring process – the resume review, the actual interview and the reference check.  Out of these three, the reference check is the one that is the most undervalued and the most likely to be skipped.  This is because many hiring managers think that reference checking is truly a perfunctory exercise – something only to be done to check off a box –  since candidates will never provide bad references.

Most companies underestimate the amount of information that can be obtained from a reference check, but questions must be asked carefully and attention needs to be paid to the answers given.  You are not just looking for things that will rule out a candidate, but for insight/information on a candidate that cannot be gained from any of the other steps in the hiring process.

Remember, when new hires do not succeed at a new job, it is not because of their skills or their experience.  It is because of the intangibles (work ethic, ability to get along with others, abilty to make deadlines, etc. ) that they bring to the table, but that are so very difficult to identify during the rest of the hiring process.

Getting this information is not easy.  It requires skill and practice, because (the truth is) most references are loyal to the candidate.  Even when the person was less than an ideal worker, most references will paint a rosier picture of their work habits – for a myriad of reasons.

So be personable with the reference… not read off your list of questions like the bland and unemotional economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.    If you do, you will receive short, curt no-more-than-two-word replies to your questions.

Dig beneath the surface of those answers.  Ask for examples, in order to get below all the sparkling generalities and indiscriminate praise. Their ability (or inability) to provide them will either validate their previous praise or expose it for what it is.

Ask open-ended questions vs. simply “yes or no” questions.  This way, if all the references (and “yes” you should call more than one) answer in the same way (without receiving any prompts or choices) you can be fairly certain that their answers are valid.  For example, do not ask if the person is weak or strong on the Adobe suite of products.  Instead, ask for examples for areas of improvement that the candidate needs to continue his/her professional development.  If everyone answers “Adobe”, then you have a valid reference point (excuse the pun).

Checking references in a way that provides accurate, actionable data is a skill that should be honed over the course of one’s career.  Sometimes it makes sense to leverage the services of a 3rd party.  Snelling is skilled in all aspects of the hiring process,  we focus on the intangible, and we understand how they all interrelate.  A good reference check starts with good interviewing.  Our recruiters and staffing managers are trained to conduct interviews that end with numerous examples of the candidate’s work quality, skills and ability to achieve results.  We then leverage those examples during the reference check process in order to validate what the candidate said.

If all of this sounds interesting and something that you would like to pursue, come talk to us.  We would love to work with you manage the hiring process (either or flexible, contingent workers or direct hire candidates); so visit us today at to find your local Snelling office.

NOTE:  A full-color, downloadable PDF is available of this blog.