“Don’t do that!” — 5 reference checking mistakes to avoid

29 Sep 2021 by Chris Morrison

At Referoo, we see the best of reference checking practices and the worst!
Here’s our round-up of the top reference checking mistakes – and how to avoid them.

“Don’t do that!” — 5 reference checking mistakes to avoid

#1 Starting the process too late

When recruiters tell me they aren’t getting the most out of their reference checks, it usually comes down to a couple of reasons – the primary one being that they left the process too late. The longer the application process, the more disengaged the candidate can become. This can lead to candidates providing generic, potentially outdated references that don’t equip you with the information you need to make an informed recommendation or hiring decision.

Leaving reference checks too late can also be detrimental when the candidate has all but gotten the job and the reference check is conducted merely as a formality.      Worst case scenario, something terrible comes up during the reference check and the candidate you’ve spent weeks nurturing through your recruitment funnel must be taken out of the running. Then, it’s back to square one.

It’s important not to put all your eggs in one basket by only vetting your final candidate. Ideally, you’ll get to a point where you have a handful of great applicants who can all do the job, and the referees will simply help you gauge who belongs at the top of the pile.

#2 Starting the process too early

To flip the tables on you, recruiters also run the risk of beginning the reference checking process too early. There is a sweet spot between the two, and it differs between industries and roles. For jobs requiring a simple background check, these can be done after the first or second round of interviews. For roles that require a personalised, thorough reference check, it’s a good idea to wait until you have a final 4 - 5 candidates in the running.

If every recruiter decided to conduct reference checks at the very beginning, referees would be fielding phone calls and emails every other day. The tenth reference they provide is going to be a lot less useful than the first. In this way, the quality of the reference deteriorates with every point of contact.

It’s a juggle, but in my opinion, reference checks can be conducted any time after the second stage of interviewing.

#3 Asking the wrong questions

Most recruiters ask the standard questions — What was the candidate’s performance like? Are they a team player? Would you rehire? The difference between people who really value references and those who just conduct them as a tick box exercise is whether or not they tailor the questions to suit the role.

There are two parts to a reference check: how well the candidate performed in their previous or current role, and how suited they are to the future role. It’s easy to get caught up on the candidate’s past performance, but their former job may be completely different to the one they’re now vying for. Recruiters will always get the most useful responses from referees when they ask questions specific to the job at hand.

It’s also a good idea to stay away from closed questions – ones that elicit a one-word response. They’re not particularly helpful and they don’t give the referee an opportunity to provide context or detail.

Referoo allows recruiters to tailor their questions for each and every job. Customised reference checks will always elicit the best responses, so it’s important that recruiters make use of this feature to ensure they get the most out of the software.

#4 Ignoring your own instincts           

Communication and connection are incredibly important for recruiters, as is the ability to read people and understand what makes them tick. Being able to see through people’s biases is crucial for conducting quality reference checks.

It’s a balancing act — references are critical but you’ve also had a chance to develop your own opinion during the interview process. If there is a warning sign in the reference that matches your observations, then it’s a no-brainer. However, if it doesn’t align with what you’ve seen of the candidate, don’t discard the warning, but don’t take it as gospel either - the referee is human with their own biases. It’s important to take note while weighing it up against your own expertise and instincts as a recruiter.      

#5 Conducting “Backdoor references”

If you’ve never heard the term before, a “backdoor reference” refers to a situation where a recruiter or hiring manager might seek out people who have worked with the candidate in the past in an attempt to gain more information about their suitability for a role. This is usually done without consent from the candidate and with someone who has not been listed as a formal reference.

When conducting unauthorised, unofficial reference checks, you run the risk of breaching confidentiality. In most cases, candidates don’t want their current employer to know they’re looking for other opportunities, and if word happens to get back to their boss, it could lead to trouble for the candidate down the road. And there’s a good chance they won’t want to work for your organisation anyway after you blew their cover. 

The reality is, people talk, but it’s important to respect the privacy of your candidates and avoid any nasty legal implications that may arise from a backdoor reference check.

Being aware of these five common mistakes and doing your best to avoid them will have you killing it in the recruitment game in no time!  

Start using Referoo today with a free, full-service 14-day online reference check trial here, or get in touch to discuss your specific needs!