When asking somebody to spend up to one hour to give information about a candidate, keep in mind that this person is doing you a big favor. Such people usually have a busy schedule. Therefore, you should adjust according to their needs and conduct the reference check at a time convenient for them. You should ask them what time is the most convenient. If they tell you that they do not have the time when you call, just make a phone appointment for later. If you cannot reach your reference and have to leave a message, state your name and firm and that you are calling to conduct a reference check. Never leave the name of the candidate, as this is a violation of the candidate's privacy.
Sometimes, references are reluctant to give out negative information. Some companies have an official policy not to give out information beyond dates the person worked there, for legal reasons, and you might not be able to obtain more information, especially from HR personnel. By using a professional telephone manner combined with a familiarity with the candidate and an understanding of the new position under consideration, you usually can encourage other references to be candid. References should be told the specifications of the new position and asked to comment upon the suitability of the candidate for such an opportunity. Past compensation, dates of employment, reasons for leaving, and other confirming data should be obtained as a part of the process.
When seeking a reference, it is very important that you speak to people who can give you the information you need. These references should be from the last three companies. The most recent references are the most important. You should talk to the closest supervisor to whom your candidate reported, the closest coworker, and someone who reported directly to your candidate.
You should aim for this selection as a minimum. The candidate might suggest additional references who know his or her work. If you speak to someone in the last group make sure that he or she is not related to the candidate or a best friend. During an extensive reference check you might end up speaking to as many as twelve people! It is better to talk to too many people than too few. It is also important to remember that each search is different, and so is each candidate, so the questions you ask the reference must take into account the requirements of the position and any particular concerns that might exist. You may develop a slightly different guide for each candidate on the same search.
When contacting the references, you should follow a written guideline. This guideline should be kept in front of you to ensure that all concerns are covered and that you do not get sidetracked. With practice, you can become very skilled at conducting a reference check. But even if you have not done a check before or for some time, with a good guideline or list of questions handy, you do not have to worry, even if a reference call comes right in the middle of something else. Another key rule is, always ask the most important questions first in case the conversation becomes very short.
The reference check is supposed to help you uncover or strengthen any uncertainties about the candidate. Always ask for examples, and probe if you hear something out of the ordinary. For example, if you hear about a weakness, keep probing and get other references to comment, and be sure to get examples. Of course, everything you hear should be documented, because you will need to make a written report after speaking to all the references.
You should follow certain guidelines in order to get the information that you need and at the same time leave the references with a professional impression. At the beginning of any conversation with a reference you should identify yourself and the candidate in question, and inform the reference that your candidate has asked (or at least given permission) for you to contact the reference. The first information that you want to get from the reference includes:
- Full name (including middle names)
- Address at work and home (including phone numbers both places)
- Current title
- Relationship to the candidate
- How long has he or she known the candidate (dates)?
- What kind of relationship (work or private)?
- How did they work together (sketch up the setting with titles) and how long? A How frequent was interaction?
Following is a list of some suggested areas that you should cover when conducting a reference check. Also remember to ask open-ended questions. Never lead the reference by asking close-ended questions, that is, questions that can be answered with yes or no.