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Are employment references effective?

Overcoming issues surrounding reference checks

By Brian Kreissl

I’ve checked a lot of references in my time, both as a recruiter and a hiring manager. While you can glean some pretty interesting information about a candidate, I personally don’t feel references have a whole lot of validity as a selection tool.

First of all, it’s very difficult to tell if a referee is telling the truth about a candidate since it is unlikely the person is going tell you anything really negative. After all, even if the candidate wasn’t the greatest employee, most referees are unlikely to want to jeopardize the person’s career.

And while it is likely a candidate will choose only those referees who will provide a reference that puts them in a positive light, people sometimes even coach their referees beforehand to ensure they put a positive spin on a negative situation. Therefore, you’re usually getting a sanitized, overly positive version of the truth.

Surprisingly, I believe I’ve only conducted two or three reference checks that were truly bad. Even then, one of those referees simply refused to answer any questions about the candidate, stating she wasn’t comfortable acting as a referee for that person.

I also find some of the questions recruiters ask as part of reference checks can be a little strange. For one thing, one recruiter asked questions on candidates’ thought processes.

If you stop and think about it for a minute, how are referees going to be able to answer questions about how a candidate thinks? Is a referee expected to be a psychologist or a mind reader?

Legal issues surrounding references

I’ve also heard about questions that have nothing to do with the person’s ability to do the job or are downright discriminatory, although those types of questions really are becoming quite rare now as a result of greater awareness of legal requirements under human rights legislation.

Privacy legislation has also had an impact but some HR professionals frankly aren’t aware how privacy legislation applies with respect to reference checks. And a lot of companies are paranoid about being sued for defamation if they provide a negative reference.

As my fellow blogger Stuart Rudner has mentioned several times, the chances of being sued in such a situation are pretty remote, as long as the references provided are fair, factual, without malice and based on the referee’s honestly held opinions.

Yet a lot of organizations still have a policy of not providing references or state that references provided can only be of the “name, rank and serial number” variety — meaning they will only confirm employment, dates, titles and salary. Often such inquiries are forwarded to someone in HR who may have had no personal knowledge of the candidate in question.

To me, this is a little unfair, especially when an organization also has a policy of requiring successful reference checks before extending an unconditional offer to a candidate. This is a double standard and can make it more difficult for people to secure employment elsewhere.

Reference check best practices

In spite of my misgivings about reference checks, I still believe they have some use, especially when they’re handled correctly. Aside from the legal requirements in this area, the following are some suggested best practices when checking references.

•Ask how well the candidate got along with others — peers, superiors and subordinates.

•Don’t forget to ask the referee to assess the quantity and quality of the candidate’s work.

•Ask the referee to confirm the candidate’s title and basic responsibilities.

•Confirm why the person left the organization.

•Use open-ended questions wherever possible. Use probing questions to dig deeper.

•Even if a reference check is very positive, always ask where the candidate could use some improvement or some “polishing.” Some additional probing may be required.

•Always ask if the person would rehire the candidate if a suitable position were available. What would such a position look like?

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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