How to Check Employee References

Checking references is a bit of a lost art…

Checking references has become so maligned that many hiring managers today dismiss it as a waste of time but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is if you’re willing to put in the work, checking references can be the difference between hiring your next superstar or hiring your next malcontent.

Listen, I’ll be the first to admit… checking references can be a bit of a PITA. I don’t like picking up the phone and getting rejected either. I don’t like being told so-an-so can’t talk to me because HR won’t let him.

Believe me, I get it.

Unfortunately there’s also nothing I despise more than hiring the wrong person for the job and having to deal with the consequences after. In fact, I’m positive most hiring managers would agree that the costs of a bad hire more than warrants spending some extra time to ensure the candidate you plan on hiring is in fact the right person for the job.

When checking references you should have two goals in the back of your mind throughout the process:

  1. Ensure the applicant is the right person for the job
  2. Verify the applicants experience, background and other critical skills

That’s it.

The biggest complaint I hear about checking references is that it’s a waste of time because it’s too difficult to get someone on the phone or that the feedback from references is so vague that it doesn’t help with the hiring decision one bit.

Check out this quote from this article:

“Policies about not providing references are frequently broken. While some employers have a policy that they won’t give a reference beyond simply confirming your dates of employment, in reality this policy is broken all the time.”

If your goal is to hire the best person for the open position you have right now than checking references is a necessary evil. While some past employers may only share start and end dates of employment, what about the past managers who will divulge to you how a prospective employee performed at their previous job? Or what kind of work ethic they displayed on the job and what their attendance was like? It’s a fact that there are people out there willing to share this information. It’s up to you to go out and find them.

Beyond the important information you’ll glean from checking references, you’ll also want to verify that your prospective client did not lie on his or her resume or job application. Make sure to verify salary history, positions held and any degrees or licenses obtained.

More importantly though, you’ll want to verify/ confirm that your prospective hire can actually do what they claim to do. And that leads me into my first tip for checking references…

Be Prepared

Just for a minute put yourself in the other managers shoes. I don’t think any managers begin their day by penciling into their agenda or saying to themselves, “I’ve got to give out some great references today.” In short, giving out references is an intrusion and usually not a welcomed one so if you’re trying to check references you need to be prepared and ready to go at a moment’s notice so as to not waste anybody’s time and more importantly to not waste any opportunities.

In my post “How to Hire Better Employees,” I make the statement: “Know what you’re searching for.” In a nutshell, it means have a very good idea of what skills, attributes and talents your prospective hire will possess to have a good chance of succeeding with your company once hired. Chances are you don’t want to hire a sales person who’s never programmed or coded a day in his life to program your next critical piece of software right? Of course not, you’d probably want to hire the guy/gal who’s been coding up a storm for the past few years and can prove it. That may be exaggerating things a bit but check out this video below on defining job expectations for better hires if this isn’t sinking in yet.


I can go on for hours on how “knowing what you’re searching for” can lead to better hires. Suffice it to say that knowing which skills and attributes are necessary for success in a particular position can also make you a better reference checker.

How so? Let’s move on to tip #2 which is:

Ask Specific Questions to Get Specific Answers

If you aren’t satisfied with the replies you’ve been getting from references maybe you need to look at the questions you’re asking… Poor answers are usually the result of poor questions. Most importantly though don’t ask any “yes or no” questions if you don’t want to receive any “yes or no” answers.

Ask open ended questions and then get out of the way. Learn to become a good listener because listening intently is one of the keys to getting the most out of references. And most of all don’t be afraid of uncomfortable silences. The person on the other end will most likely feel the uncomfortable silence as well and may volunteer some information that they wouldn’t normally volunteer.

Of utmost importance when asking questions though is to ask specific questions that will help you make a hiring decision. In my opinion, that becomes a little easier if you know what quality or traits you’re looking for in a specific candidate. I think it’s a great idea to develop a list of customized job-specific questions for every different position in your organization keeping the two goals at the top of this post in mind.

Be a Good Listener

When checking references you’ll also have to listen for subtle signs and read between the lines because most managers aren’t going to come out and tell you that they’d never in a million years hire so-and-so again. Learn to listen to tone and the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) in someone’s voice to gauge their true feelings about a past employee. Is the other manager hesitant to answer a certain question? Is there a long pause before answering a question? Sometimes it’s not what a former manager says but what they don’t say that will tell you everything you need to know. And that leads me to my next tip.

Make sure the person you’re speaking to has worked with the applicant

Most hiring managers I speak with are pretty much in agreement that personal references are a complete waste of time. The same can be said if you’re trying to get a reference from someone who never directly worked with the applicant. It’s critical that you speak with someone who has directly worked with the applicant so you can get an accurate depiction of the applicant’s capabilities.

Speaking with co-workers or managers from different departments who didn’t directly supervise or work with your prospective employee is a great way to waste your time. It’s also a common tactic used by job seekers… that is submitting only references that will speak well of them.

Don’t be afraid to ask if there’s anyone else you can speak with. Sometimes you have to do a little detective work and sleuthing around before you find the right person to talk to. And the bottom line is you prefer to speak with someone who has directly worked with your prospective employee. All things being considered, speaking to a former manager of a prospective employee is probably best.

How to Get References to Open up

Try as you may it can sometimes be difficult to get references to open up about past employees. I think the best approach to take and to relay to the reference is that you want to make sure the applicant will be a good fit for your organization and also that your organization will be a good fit for the candidate. Nobody wants to be the reason someone didn’t get a job but most people do want to be helpful. It’s up to you to craft your questions in a manner that makes the reference feel like they are helping you and the candidate and not necessarily costing someone a job.

If you still can’t get any references to open up and you really like a particular candidate, you may want to put the ball back in the candidate’s court and let them know that you haven’t been able to communicate with any of the references provided and ask that they provide more. It could also be a red flag if you can’t find somebody to speak positively about the applicant’s past performance.

Use LinkedIn

Here’s a link to a great article from Forbes on how savvy employers are using LinkedIn to find better references:

The article is more of a warning to job seekers but it should give you some great ideas on how you can use LinkedIn to find others who might be able to help you assess a candidate’s capabilities. Basically you want to log into LinkedIn and see if you have any connections to the applicant. If you are not directly connected to the applicant you will not be able to see their profile but you will be able to see what connections you have in common. LinkedIn is a great resource that you can use to create your own list of references particularly if you’re looking for more candid responses.

I agree 100% that checking references can be a total waste of time. The caveat to that is that most organizations aren’t doing everything they can to get the most out of checking references. You can’t continue to do things the way you’ve always done them and expect to get different or better results. If you’re not happy with the results you’ve been getting from checking references, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at how you’re checking references.

For more tips on how to hire better employees, follow me on Twitter and please chime in with any tips you have on how to check references in the comments.

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