are reference checks still neccessary

Are reference checks still necessary?

Reference checking is traditionally seen as the last stage of the recruitment process; the final hoop to go through before you can make a formal offer to the candidate. Many employers simply don’t bother checking references – only 62% of HR professionals believe you should conduct reference checks and nearly half admit they don’t always confirm qualifications.

When employers do regularly check references, it often becomes a monotonous box-ticking exercise that offers no real insight into the candidate and wastes everyone’s time. Many companies now have a policy of only confirming the name, job title and employment dates for their former employee and will ban any further conversation. That’s really not enough to tell you whether a candidate is likely to perform well in your role.

So is it really worth conducting reference checks and, if so, how can you get the information you really want to know?

Why reference checks are important

There are two main benefits to conducting reference checks; they allow you to verify what a candidate has claimed on their CV and at interview and they can help you dig deeper into a candidate’s less obvious attributes, such as attitude, soft skills or cultural fit.

A 2018 report from job board found that 37% of jobseekers have lied on their CV at some stage in their professional career, and the profession most likely to lie were those looking for roles in marketing or advertising. 83% said their lie was never uncovered, even after they got the job.

Candidates were most likely to be economical with the truth around skillsets, work experience and education. Rather than outright lies, these falsehoods tend to be exaggerating and overstating to make themselves look better, but can still be damaging for both the candidate and company when the truth comes out. At the Tarsh Partnership, we’ve also had a few cases where candidates have inflated their current salary in order to secure a better offer.

While interviews are an essential part of the recruitment process, they are an artificially formal situation and don’t always tell you what it would be like to work with someone on a day-to-day basis. With the average cost-per-hire in the UK at £3,000, it’s important to find the right long-term fit for your company.

Referrals can help you establish if a candidate will perform well in your organisation, given the specific challenges of that role. A referrer can also give you insight into a candidate’s strengths and limitations, helping you determine what support they will need in the job.

What’s the best way to check references?

Firstly, it’s important to establish who you are going to ask and what you need to know from them – don’t just stick to a standard list of questions. A background checking service or your recruitment consultancy can handle the verification of dates and qualifications, but it’s always worth trying to have a good conversation with a referee yourself.

Ideally, you need to talk to a previous direct line manager, as they will have direct experience of managing the candidate on a day-to-day basis. Don’t talk to their current manager unless you have explicit permission from the candidate to do so. If the company has a ‘no conversations’ policy, you can try and get round this by asking the candidate to contact their referrers themselves to see if they’d be willing to talk. You could also try getting in touch with people in your network (via LinkedIn, professional associations or personal networks) who also know the candidate.

When you do manage to talk directly to a referee, it’s best to adopt a positive tone and start off by assuming the candidate will be a good fit. If you display any hesitation or scepticism about a candidate, it’s likely the referrer will be unforthcoming out of loyalty to their ex-employee.

Go on to describe the role and responsibilities, so that the referrer can get an idea of what the candidate will be doing, and ask open-ended, but specific, questions. Rather than vague questions like “What can you tell me about this candidate?” base your questions on the candidate’s CV; asking something like “I understand this candidate helped to introduce new packaging for your brand. Can you tell me more about their role in that?”

Some other useful questions to ask include:

  • What makes the candidate a good fit for this job?
  • If you had the opportunity, would you re-hire this job candidate? Why?
  • What are the candidate’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
  • Did the candidate get along with their co-workers and management?
  • What advice can you give me to successfully manage the job candidate?
  • What else do I need to know about the job candidate that I didn’t already ask?

Some useful resources

CIPD guidance on conducting pre-employment checks

Advice for employers from Acas on providing job references

Template for a letter granting permission from a candidate to conduct reference checks

15 questions to ask in reference checks

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