The hiring process and reference checks: Validating your candidate assessment

Reference checks are an important part of the hiring process. They reveal an objective and relevant perspective of the job candidate. The reference check should validate your assessment of the candidate.

The reference check process can hold some inherent conflict for both the candidate and their current or previous employer (that is, the reference source). This conflict may arise because:

  • The reference source is concerned about potential legal action if they say anything negative about the candidate
  • The reference source is concerned that their current employee is looking for another job
  • The candidate does not want to list their current employer as a reference as they do not want to risk any backlash from having their current employer know they are seeking a new job

If the candidate is actively employed, you may not be able to conduct a reference check with that employer. It is up to the candidate if they want to provide this information to you.

To alleviate some of this conflict and set the tone for a successful reference check, keep the following in mind:

  • Respect privacy: Always get the candidate’s permission to contact each reference, preferably in writing. All information collected should be kept in accordance with the Privacy Act
  • Explain that you seek a good fit: When speaking with the reference source, emphasize that you seek a “good fit” between the person and the job and the organization, so that both sides will be successful
  • Probe: Continually probe for specific examples of previous behaviour that relate to your open position. Give your own examples to start the conversation and put the other person at ease
  • Encourage openness: Make it easy for the source to give you honest, even if negative, information about the candidate. Show that you have the candidate’s best interests in mind as well as your own, and that you understand and appreciate the candidate’s strengths

During this process, make sure you check at least three references. If you have any uncertainty, check more references.

Conducting the reference check: Key tips

  • Be prepared and be as brief as possible
  • Take notes to compare with stakeholders
  • Clarify the relationship between the reference source and the candidate
  • Clarify the position(s) that the candidate had while working for the source
  • Ask for specific information
  • Ask questions relevant to the job
  • Ask about relationships and behaviours (e.g., how do they show leadership or initiative?)
  • If the source is not the current employer, ask why the candidate left the organization and whether the source would rehire this person (and why or why not)
  • If requested, keep the information from the source confidential
  • Ask if there is anything else they would like to add about the candidate

Useful templates