HR Tip: Reference checks: worth the time

The tragic fatal shooting of a reporter and cameraman from a Virginia TV station is a sobering illustration of the difficulty in obtaining real and valuable information when reference checks are done. Fearful of a defamation suit, many employers are reluctant to give more than basic information about former employees. Checking references takes time, is often frustrating, and may not yield productive results, so why bother?

The answer is simply, you can’t afford not to. A bad hire costs more than lost money; it means lost productivity, adverse impact on morale, negative impact on clients, and in the worse cases, workplace violence.

To get the most out of reference checking, here are a few tips:

  1. Request a wide range of references from multiple sources – supervisors, colleagues, and staff.
  2. Ask specific questions and tactfully solicit critical feedback. Include open-ended questions about strengths and weaknesses, room for growth, ability to take direction, interactions with co-workers, clients, why did they leave and so on.
  3. Always ask if the person is eligible for rehire and if there is anything else you should know.
  4. Ask the applicant what he/she expects references to say and use this information to frame questions.
  5. Be cognizant of the way information is given. A really good employee will inevitably get an enthusiastic reference. Lukewarm responses, indirect answers, and long pauses can be subtle hints that this is not a person you want to hire. Probe further, if the response does not answer your question.
  6. If you get diverted to HR and get stonewalled with only dates of employment, be aggressive. Ask if this applies for all references. Try to find out if the person is eligible for rehire. Call back and try reaching a supervisor or coworker directly.

While references don’t always work, you’ll be thankful when the effort prevents a bad hire.

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