Better than a Reference Check?

Better than a Reference Check?

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been in HR quite a while now and have conducted hundreds of reference checks. I’ve found most to be a waste of the referee’s time and my time since (almost) nobody is going to give you the name of someone who will provide them with a bad reference. If you do come across someone who provides a lousy reference – consider their motivation and clarify with the candidate.

So if I don’t want to rely on a reference, what to do instead? Make sure your interview process is thorough.


  1. Know what you want before you start: This means making sure the job description is accurate, and you understand what you are looking for. Ensure the job posting is specific: say what you want, don’t hide it in jargon or glaze over it in generalities. If you don’t say what you want, then chances are you won’t get it – and that is a waste of everyone’s time and money.
  2. Develop tough interview questions. Ask the questions you really need the answers to, not the questions you think you have to ask. Do you need to know about a time someone had to learn a new process or do you need to understand how someone effectively changed a process?
  3. Include different people in the process. While the hiring manager must be involved in the process to make the final decision, it is worth adding people with different perspectives on the position. For instance, if recruiting for an engineer, how about including a marketing representative or machine operator, or document controller? People who interact differently with the role may have different (and valuable) perspective on the candidate.
  4. Ask about references in the interview – who are they or where don’t they have a reference and why? Will they be able to comment on current skills/abilities?
  5. Create scenarios, job shadowing for a day, assessments, and role-playing that allow the candidate the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skill. That’s what you need to know anyway.
  6. Ask yourself what you’re digging for – and dig in the interview.
  7. If you’re serious about references adding value – meet the referee in person, and if you can’t attend in person, aim at least Skype as tone and body language account for 70 – 85% of communication.
  8. Consider what you’re information you are asking for and why – to confirm a hunch or bias?


Favourite Suggestion

Don’t do the reference check! Verify employment details, interview thoroughly, build a great onboarding program, and trust that your new employee wants to succeed as much as you want them to succeed. If that trust isn’t there, it wasn’t because you didn’t do a reference check – something else in the recruiting process went wrong. Here’s your chance to find and fix.

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