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Reference Checking: More Than a Necessary Evil

You have found a perfect candidate! His job experience is a perfect match, the culture fit is just right, and everyone in the office loves him! It's a done deal, right? Not so fast; it's now time for the reference checks.

Too often hiring organizations treat the reference check stage as a necessary evil, as the last "required" stage before the excitement of finalizing an offer. It is important to realize, however, that reference checking is not the end of the hiring process but rather the bridge between the hiring and onboarding processes. Not only will reference checking help you make the best hiring decision possible but it will also support the hired candidate's successful transition into his or her new role.

Checking references is the last step of a process designed to help you identify the candidate who will be most successful in a specific role and within the organization as a whole. At the beginning of the process, you should have outlined the competencies required for success in the role. During the interview stage, you gathered data about each candidate's ability to be successful in that role. The résumé and cover letter gave you some information, the in-person interviews gave you a lot more, and your ongoing interactions and any assignments you had the candidate complete added to the picture. The reference check process is your first opportunity to gather data from an outside source; take advantage of it!

The Process

Checking references begins with requesting references from the candidate. For a lower-level position, 3 references should be sufficient; for a more senior position, 5 are appropriate. For the most senior positions, 7–10 references are ideal.

When requesting references, think about the position and what you need to learn about the candidate. Typically, reference lists include mostly previous supervisors. This is fine, as you are certainly interested in the past performance information that a former supervisor can provide. Don't feel, however, that you need to limit yourself only to former supervisors. For example, if you are hiring for a management position, it will be important to ask the candidate to include as a reference someone she has managed. If the position is a senior-level one, you might want to consider requiring the candidate to list a board member or other high-level constituent from her professional experience. If your organization is highly team-oriented, you may want to speak with a former peer or colleague of the candidate.

Structuring Reference Checks

Reference letters are a thing of the past. Think about it; a reference letter is static and tells you only what the reference wants you to know about a candidate. Similarly, reference letters do not address the needs of the particular position for which you are hiring. Performing reference checks by phone allows you to direct the conversation to gather the data that you need in order to make the best hiring decision.

When you are ready to start your reference checking, remember the following tips:

  • Be persistent: When you are reaching out to a reference, remember that these are busy people and that providing a reference is not part of their daily job. It is important to be respectful of their time and reasonable about your expectations in terms of availability while also persevering, as returning your call may fall to the bottom of a reference's priority list. Sometimes it is more efficient to schedule reference calls over e-mail instead of relying on catching someone by phone.

  • Be purposeful: Plan the calls in advance. Take some time to create a reference-checking template for the specific position. This template should open with an introduction of yourself and a short overview of the organization and the position, then proceed to such standard questions as "What has been your relationship to this candidate and how long have you known him/her?"

    The next few questions should ask the reference for specific examples of times when the candidate has successfully demonstrated the core competencies required for the position. For example, one question for a director of development position might be "Please give me an example of a time when the candidate successfully identified a prospective donor and worked with that donor through the cultivation stage to a contribution."

    Toward the end of the call, ask if the reference would rehire the candidate. Close the call with the simple yet effective "What else should I know about the candidate?"

  • Be consistent yet flexible: Just as when you are interviewing candidates, it is important to maintain a consistent and equitable process while checking references. Using a template as described above can ensure consistency. That being said, consider individualizing your template based on what you have learned about a particular candidate to date. For example, your organization may be very team-oriented, but teamwork is not identified as a core competency for the position in question. If you have a concern about how the candidate would fit into the culture, ask the reference.

  • Be aware: The absolute most important part of a reference check is listening; let the reference talk. Give the reference time to digest the question and then give a full answer. Then listen carefully to not only the words the reference is using but how he or she is using them.

    For example, if you ask, "Would you rehire this candidate?" think of all the ways that someone can say the single word "Yes." It can be completely and utterly enthusiastic and sincere. There could be a long pause and some hesitation before the reference finally squeaks out a mild "Yes." Listen for pauses and hesitation; they could be signs that the reference is trying to find a way to put a positive spin on his or her answer. It is usually fairly evident when a reference is struggling to find a positive answer rather than raving on about the candidate.

  • Keep it legal: Remember that the same discrimination laws that apply to interviewing apply to reference checking, so do not ask about marital status, age, disabilities, religion, ethnicity, or other personal characteristics. Remember that all questions have to relate directly to the candidate's ability to be successful in the position that you are filling.

Final Thoughts

Increasingly, organizations have a company policy that prevents their employees from providing references; instead, they are only able to verify employment, including dates of employment and title. Don't judge the candidate because his or her former employer has this policy; it does not mean that the candidate was not successful. Instead, go back to the candidate to get the name and contact information for an alternative reference.

Finally, many employers like to include "back-door reference checks" in their process, which means that they call people known to them who may have experience with the candidate but have not been listed by the candidate as a reference. Although back-door references can provide important information, it is essential to recognize and be respectful of the position that this could put the candidate in. The nonprofit sector is a particularly small world, and letting someone know that a candidate is on the job market could easily get back to the candidate's current employer and put that candidate at risk.

Commongood Careers
© 2009, Commongood Careers

Commongood Careers is a national nonprofit search firm dedicated to helping today's most effective social entrepreneurs hire the best talent. Founded by nonprofit professionals, Commongood Careers offers personalized, engaged services to job seekers and organizations throughout the hiring process as well as access to a wealth of knowledge about careers in the social sector.
Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice