The big guide to reference checking in recruitment processes

Digital reference checking Erik Oliva Werner

 
 

Reference checking is a given part of modern recruitment processes, but it’s not obvious how to conduct it in order to render as much value as possible. Who can be a reference and what kind of information and feedback can a reference give and share? How many references should I ask for? How do I know the reference is authentic and not fake? Do I need approval from the reference to conduct the reference check? Which questions should I ask? And which questions should I avoid?

 

These are just some of the questions that recruiters and recruiting managers ask themselves and discuss inside their organizations. This guide aims to provide some clarity and support through tips and tricks in how to think about reference checking and to improve the experience for candidates and references but also to get better feedback and increase the quality and validity of the reference check. Are you ready? Here we go!

 

 

What does reference checking actually mean and what is the purpose of performing reference checks?

Reference checking in a recruitment process means the recruiter contacts and asks questions to individuals who can provide reliable and relevant information about the candidate. Those individuals are typically former managers, colleagues, or other peers.

 

The reference checking process has two main purposes:

  1. Verify the information provided during the recruitment process.

  2. Complement already gathered information to get an even more clear picture of the candidate. By posing questions to other persons than the candidate you can gain new insights about the candidate’s performance, personality, motivation, and other characteristics of the candidate that might not have been brought up before the reference check. These insights can also be valuable for a tailored and successful onboarding process when the candidate is joining the organization.

Who can be a reference?

A reference is a person who can confirm och complement the information you already have about the candidate. Different roles can give different perspectives and therefore it’s valuable to ask for several references who have had different relationships with the candidate to get a 360 view, or as good of a picture as possible.

Here’s a list of different kinds of references and what sort of information they typically can and will provide.

Manager, team leader, or project manager:

Previous managers or team leaders are usually well-suited references, especially if they’ve been working closely with the candidate. Many times they are in a position to both confirm the information provided by the candidate but also provide additional information and valuable perspectives about the candidate's experience, qualifications, traits, and performance.

If the candidate has been working as a manager and leading a team it can be worth considering asking the candidate for references from employees that have been working for him/her as well.

Colleague:

A colleague of the candidate can also confirm and complement the information regarding the candidate's qualifications, traits, and performance, but from a different perspective than a manager. Colleagues can usually give concrete examples of how the candidate has acted and performed in different situations. As a recruiter, you then get to see the candidate in a broader context which is highly valuable.

Customer:

Individuals who’ve had a customer relationship with the candidate can add further value and insights about the candidate by providing an outside perspective. It can be feedback regarding customer relations, cooperation with external parties, drive, and other relevant areas.

Teacher, mentor, or advisor

Many candidates are completely new to the job market and come straight from school or university with little or no work experience. In those cases, a previous teacher, mentor, or advisor can function as a valuable reference and provide you with relevant information about the candidate's traits and performance.

Friend or another personal reference

In addition to the teachers, mentors, and advisors as references in those cases where the candidate lacks work experience, a personal reference can be valuable as well. They can usually provide you with information about the candidate´s traits and personal attributes but are not well suited to give detailed information about work-related areas such as skills and performance.

What to think about when asking the candidate for references?

  • Encourage the candidate to provide a reference who represents several different perspectives and relationships. A combination of some of the types of references listed above is typically a good rule of thumb.

  • The references should have worked together with the candidate within the last 5 years. Needless to say perhaps, the more time that has passed, the less reliable a reference will be and the validity drops significantly after 5 years.

  • Emphasize to the candidate how important it is to inform the references about the fact that a reference check will be conducted, who is going to contact them, and when. This is to increase the likelihood of a prepared, reflected, and nuanced reference when the time comes for the reference check.

How many references should I contact?

As many as possible! The more references, the better, according to science, which you can read more about in our white paper. The reliability and validity of the reference check increase by the number of references you collect. It becomes easy to identify patterns in the answers you get in the reference check and you’re in a better position to draw well-informed conclusions from that.

Although it varies a lot between countries and cultures our perception is that the most common thing is to contact two references during the reference checking process but our view on it is that it’s a consequence of the labor-intensive and cumbersome way of conducting reference checks over the phone. In this aspect digital reference has a huge advantage and you can easily collect as many references as you wish without putting any extra work in thanks to the digitalized and automated process.

In which ways can I conduct the reference check?

Reference checking in recruitment processes can be conducted in a variety of ways and different methods have their pros and cons. So let’s go through them one by one.

Phone call:

Traditionally reference checking has primarily been done through a phone call between the recruiter and the reference. Many see advantages in being able to ask spontaneous questions during the conversation and to “read between the lines” to better understand what the reference is saying. This is a double-edged sword and exactly this aspect of it, which can be valuable, is also its greatest weakness leading to lower validity and increasing the risk of cognitive bias.

As a recruiter, it’s very easy to ask questions based on your gut feeling and interpretation of what is being said and as a consequence, the questions will vary between the conversations making it very hard to compare answers and notes from the different references. It makes this traditional way more prone to discrimination and biased interpretations than other methods.

A written letter of recommendation:

A written letter of recommendation is a text written by, for example, a previous manager to the candidate after he/she has left the job. The text usually describes the tasks performed by the candidate, how he/she performed, his/hers skills, and other things along those lines. The written statement is typically something the employee asks for when ending the employment rather than something you ask for in a recruitment process.

A written letter of recommendation can be valuable and provide some context and confirm the information stated by the candidate in the process. However, the downside is that information is limited and it’s not adjusted to the context and the actual position you are considering the candidate for. Another negative aspect is the limited ways of verifying the letter making it easy to create inauthentic documents. Lastly, it is also very hard to judge the validity of the contents since you are not contacting the reference yourself.

Digital reference checking:

Today there are many services and products to perform digital reference checking digitally. This is normally done via a questionnaire which is being sent out to the references who can answer when, where, and how they prefer. Which is exactly what our product, Refapp, is doing. The benefits of digital reference checking are a more efficient, standardized process with higher validity and without the risk of cognitive bias involved in other methods. You can thoroughly consider and decide which questions are relevant to ask based on the role specification and the answers will be much easier to compare thanks to the identical questions posed to all references.

Furthermore, you can conduct more reference checks without spending any more time on them, which provides you with more data and increases the reliability of the reference check. One potential drawback is, however, the fact that you can’t ask spontaneous follow-up questions the same as you would in a normal conversation. Although, this can be addressed by designing the questionnaire in a way that encourages the reference to elaborate as much as possible through free-text fields. In this way, you can increase the likelihood of getting as much nuance as possible from the reference check.

Sometimes a combination of several methods is the way to go!

It’s very important to point out that these methods are not mutually exclusive, but rather the opposite, in many cases they can complement each other and give you an even better understanding of the candidate. For example, if you after conducting a digital reference check are experiencing that you haven’t gotten all the information you need or some parts need clarification it can be a good idea to call the reference and ask those questions directly.

In Refapp you find a smooth calendar-booking solution for this purpose but it also provides references who prefer to do it in a call the possibility to choose that and instead book a call directly in the recruiters’ calendar. You can take notes within the system enabling you to compare these notes side by side with the answers from the questionnaire.

When to conduct the reference check?

There is no general answer as to when in the recruitment process a reference check is most valuable. It all depends on your process and situation. However, most recruiters prefer to conduct the reference check at the end of the recruitment process, which normally makes sense and works fine. However, we encourage recruiters to not add it as a step at the end of the process, because it’s always been done like that, but rather to analyze and discuss where in the process it fits in the best. A reference check can be done just as well at the beginning of a recruitment process as in the end.

Perhaps you’re in a situation where you are about to recruit candidates with limited, or none, work experience and therefore want to use the reference check as a way to screen the candidates and rule out those that don’t fit the job profile early in the process, rather than in the end.

Which questions to ask in the reference check?

Today many recruiters and companies work with what is called a competency-based recruitment process. This means a process with a clear job profile that is used as the basis for each recruitment during every step of the process, including the reference check. The job profile should be thoroughly thought through and should be bias-free and non-discriminatory. With a clear specification of the role, you should ask questions aligned to the job profile which encourages the reference to provide answers and relevant context to concrete situations and experience where the candidate acted in a certain way which then can be compared to the desired type of behavior or traits specified in the role beforehand.

Also, be aware to ask the same questions to all references in the recruitment project and mix free text questions with grading questions or multiple-choice questions. The science shows it increases the validity of the reference check.

To sum it up:

To sum it up:

  • Ask competency-based questions. Start with the job profile and formulate the questions according to that.

  • Formulate questions that ask the reference to give examples of situations that place the competencies in context. It’s more important to understand how a person does something and in which way rather than what a person does. How does the candidate resolve problems? How does he/she collaborate? In what way does the candidate provide service?

  • Combine your free-text field questions with grading and/or multiple-choice questions.

  • Ask the same questions to all references within the same recruitment project,

Which questions not to ask and how to detail with sensitive personal information?

If you ask questions based on the practices described above and have done so with the starting point in a well-defined job profile, free from prejudice and discrimination, you are on the right track! Although, you have to look out for sensitive personal information. According to GDPR some personal information is particularly sensitive and therefore practically forbidden to collect and store (if you don’t have proper consent).

The European Commission considers the following data to be sensitive personal information:

  • personal data revealing racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs;

  • trade-union membership;

  • genetic data, biometric data processed solely to identify a human being;

  • health-related data;

  • data concerning a person’s sex life or sexual orientation.

What more to consider in regards to GDPR?

The GDPR regulation is always applicable when it comes to reference checking regardless if it’s done digitally or manually via phone or other conversation and the data get stored digitally or any other kind of searchable format. As mentioned in the previous paragraph it is not allowed to collect and store any kind of data that is regarded as sensitive personal information without the candidate’s consent.

How do I discover fraud and do I verify the authenticity of a reference?

Unfortunately, fraud in recruitment does occur although it’s very rare. Reference checking is an important part of verifying the information provided by the candidate, but how do you ensure its authenticity? If you ever would feel suspicious about a reference it can be enough with some investigative work to find out it’s authentic or not.

  • Examine the contact details of the reference. Is the e-mail connected to a business e-mail? If so, which company?

  • If you don’t recognize the company, google the company name to see if you can find the website of the company or any other relevant company information

  • Search for the reference name and phone number of the person to see if it generates a result on the company website or in other relevant business settings

When using Refapp for digital reference checking you’re being notified automatically when a suspicious activity has been observed and is being flagged as potential fraud. We are monitoring the IP addresses and if two or more references are being done from the same IP address an alarm sets off. The same goes if the candidate shares the same IP address as any of the references. However, it doesn’t mean it’s actual fraud since many employees share the same IP address at work, but it is an effective way to detect suspicious activity nonetheless. We flag it and provide you with suggestions on how to proceed and to resolve it when we detect it. In that way, you can be ensured that we pick up most of the fraud attempts in your reference checking.

 

We hope this guide has helped you and provided you with answers to any questions you might have had about digital reference checking. If you miss any information or have any questions, or want to know more about Refapp and how we can help you increase your recruitment process, don’t hesitate to reach out to us to book a demo!