Although studies show that 87% of employers use some type of background or reference checking process during the hiring stages, many still underestimate the total value of this powerful recruitment tool.

Reference checking involves questioning an applicant’s current and former co-workers and managers, known as their referees, to learn more about the candidate’s skills, aptitude and experience.

When done effectively, reference checks can enable your company to evaluate the applicant's workplace skills better and determine potential culture fit. It also can help your organisation determine whether the candidate is suitable for the role and the company.

It's important to realise, however, that how you conduct the reference checking process can impact its value. For instance, a reference check showed quickly and without a clear plan will likely provide limited results. On the other hand, strategic reference checking can deliver the insights necessary to make sound hiring decisions.

For these reasons, developing a comprehensive reference checking process is critical to obtain the necessary information. Keep reading to create a strategy that works for your company.

steps for conducting reference checks

Two woman walking outside while having a conversation, smiling.
Two woman walking outside while having a conversation, smiling.

When creating a comprehensive reference checking process, there are a few best practices to keep in mind, such as:

prepare in advance

You never want to conduct a reference check unprepared. This practice can lead to confusing or irrelevant feedback and possible compliance issues. Instead, take some time to prepare before you call or email a candidate's referee to conduct a reference check. 

Start by seeking input from the people within your organisation involved in interviewing the candidate. Ask them to point out any areas about the applicant they want more information about or concerns about the candidate or their skill set.

Next, take some time to read over the candidate's resume, application, cover letter, interview notes and other pertinent information to refresh your memory. You also want to determine the purpose of the reference check.

Is your main objective to verify the candidate's skills, determine job fit or ensure there are no underlying issues with the applicant? Understanding your primary purpose allows you to focus on asking questions that can provide the desired results.

notify candidates

Be sure to let the candidate know you will be conducting reference checks.

In Australia, it is a legal requirement that you obtain explicit consent from each candidate before contacting any of their nominated referees. You must also know your legal limits about questions you can ask about the candidate in a reference check.

For example, you cannot ask about the candidate's age, relationship status or whether or not they have children.

ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions work best for reference checking because they give the referee more leeway to answer your question. Closed questioning, those questions that elicit either a one-word or one-sentence answer, are unlikely to provide the valuable insights you want and need.

While some close-ended questions are ok, especially near the beginning and end of the conversation, most of your questions should give the referee the ability to provide as much information as they see fit.

For example:

  • What were the primary responsibilities of the candidate in their position?
  • How did the candidate handle conflict at work?
  • What would you say are the candidate's greatest strengths and weaknesses?
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don't make assumptions

When conducting a reference check, you should always stick to facts by asking the referee to back up their opinions with an example or additional information.

For instance, if the referee says that they think the applicant would be a good fit for the role, follow that answer by asking what specific skills would make the candidate a good fit.

Additionally, don't read too much into the referee's attitude or tone when conducting a verbal reference check. Without knowing the referee personally, it's difficult to determine if this is just the person's natural tone if they are having a bad or stressful day, or if their attitude has something to do with the candidate.

don't rush the process

Suppose you're conducting the reference check by phone. Set aside time to ask all your questions. The last thing you want to do is to rush the reference checking process. If referees feel rushed, they could be reluctant to provide complete answers. These checks could then fail to deliver the insights you need. 

If, on the other hand, you're using email to send referees a form to complete, be sure to give them several days to finish and send out a friendly reminder, if necessary.

Automated reference checking technology can speed up the process by allowing referees to provide feedback from any device and automatically send out reminders. However, you still want to give referees ample time to complete this form. 

don't interrupt the referee during the reference check 

Be mindful of not interrupting referees while they're talking. After all, you never want to prevent a referee from providing valuable information regarding the applicant. Instead, ask your question and give the referee time to collect their thoughts so they can answer thoughtfully.

However, it is ok to steer the referee back on topic if they stray too far from the original question or start divulging private information about the applicant that has nothing to do with the job.

You don't have to worry about this issue using online reference checking software, such as Relevate Reference. Instead, referees can take the time to complete the online questionnaire when it's most convenient for them. 

look for red flags

There are a few red flags to look for when conducting reference checks, such as:

  • The applicant didn't notify the referee about the call to conduct a reference check.
  • The referee can't answer basic questions about the applicant.
  • Basic work information, such as job title and duties, is not aligned with the applicant's resume.
  • The referee states that they are not the right person to answer the questions about the applicant.

If you're conducting an online reference check, you may also be able to detect potential fraudulent references.

For example, our Relevate Reference technology can alert you if referees use the same device through IP tracking

Any of these red flags may indicate that the applicant embellished some of their education, skills or experience or that the reference is not credible.

automate the reference checking process

staffing - three people one standing out in various color combinations. Please use the background color as indicated in the file name.
staffing - three people one standing out in various color combinations. Please use the background color as indicated in the file name.

If you are still conducting reference checks manually, you may want to consider using online reference checking software instead. With this technology, you can send referees a short online form they can complete anytime, anywhere and from any device. This technology can also alert you to possible fraud issues.

For example, if two referees use the same device to complete the questionnaire, our technology can detect this issue. Also, remember that you can always conduct a follow-up call to obtain more information if necessary.  

Online reference check solutions take this tedious task out of your hands and automate the entire process.

For example, our Randstad Relevate Reference can streamline your entire reference checking process, gathering higher quality feedback in less time and securely and safely. 

apply for a job in the public sector through Randstad.

how to conduct effective reference check

download ebook
about the author
Alex Carson
Alex Carson

alex carson

randstad general manager professionals victoria

Alex Carson has been part of the Randstad business for the last 14 years. Having initially joined the Randstad UK business in 2007 after graduating, after seven successful years, he relocated with his wife to Melbourne and joined the Australian business. Over the journey, Alex has recruited and managed teams across various sectors and disciplines, including public and private sector clients.

In his current position as General Manager in Victoria, Alex is responsible for Randstad's Victorian Professional businesses that incorporate our Construction, Property and Engineering, Public Sector that includes both Local, Federal and State Government, Banking and Financial Services, Accounting and Finance as well as our Manufacturing, Operations, Transport and Logistics Business across Victoria.

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