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Are Informal References Worthwhile When Hiring?

Morgan Lichtenstein
7 min read

When you’re interviewing applicants about their employment history and past professional experiences, their answers are going to be one-sided. That’s because they’re desperately trying to get the job and want to make as good an impression as possible. To get better information about how a candidate’s work performance, you’ll need to get a third-party perspective.

An excellent way to do this is by getting references. Doing them can take a sizable chunk out of your workday. However, they’re still worth doing. That’s because the more time and energy you can put into vetting a candidate, the better your chances you’ll make a terrific hire and avoid a horrible one.

There are two types of reference checks—the traditional kind and informal ones. In case you’re wondering if it’s worthwhile to do informal reference checks, the answer is “yes.”

In this article, I’ll discuss these three points:

Reasons for conducting reference checks

According to a recent survey, 34% of US employers reported removing a job candidate from consideration after running a background check. Many companies continue to find immense value in conducting reference checks.

However, getting previous employers to give references is more challenging than it used to be. Managers know that disclosing too much or too little can have devastating legal consequences. That's why they're increasingly wary of what they say about past employees and their work histories.

Reference checks are your first and sometimes only opportunity to learn about a candidate from an outside source. They allow you to verify facts you first got from resumes, interviews, and cover letters. They also provide you with the opportunity to learn all about a job seeker through the eyes of another.

Here are a few other reasons why you should be doing reference checks:

  •  VERIFIES WHAT A CANDIDATE SAYS: A reference check can verify if the applicant has the skills they say they have. It provides an excellent glimpse into the job seeker’s competencies, including their ability to overcome challenges
  • ADDITIONAL SKILLS AND ABILITIES: An individual providing a reference might share abilities and skills that the candidate is too bashful to disclose.  
  • WHAT THEY’RE LIKE TO WORK WITH: Contacting a job candidate’s references gives you a vastly better picture of what it’s like to work with the person than merely soliciting their opinion. Doing reference checks also helps you figure out how well they’ll fit in your workplace culture.

Is it legal to conduct a reference check?

To stay within legal bounds, the information you're checking for must be job-related. It also cannot violate any discrimination laws.

You must also inform job seekers that you’re going to be conducting reference checks. Letting applicants know you're going to be doing them also helps ensure that the answers they give you during interviews are honest and accurate. 

Conducting regular reference checks

Obtaining reliable information from a candidate's former supervisor is a crucial first step before onboarding a recruit. Start by asking job seekers what their old bosses are likely to say about them. Use this information as the basis for questions when obtaining references from former supervisors.

The list of references a job seeker gives you are those people they want you to contact. However, if you know someone else to call, feel free to contact them instead. That's because it's infinitely easier to trust someone you know than to take the word of someone you've never met.

Call even if you think the candidate is the perfect fit. Provide the person from whom you’re getting a reference with some background as to why you’re calling. Tell them who you are, which organization you work for, and any other relevant information. Ask them any questions that relate to the job. Just keep in mind that that questions about protected classes such as sex, age, and race are legally prohibited.

If the prospective employee is going to report directly to you, perform the reference check yourself. Don't delegate it to HR because you know the position best and have questions that might not have occurred to others.

Asking the right questions

The reference check is an essential part of the hiring process because it can help reveal details about a job seeker you might not otherwise discover. However, to get the right information, you must ask the right questions.

Here’s a list of the 15 best questions to ask when checking references:

  1. Can you verify the candidate’s employment history, job title, rate of pay, and responsibilities?
  2. What are their most valuable skills or qualities?
  3. What was their most significant accomplishment?
  4. Why did they leave your company?
  5. How do you know the applicant?
  6. What was it like to work with the candidate?
  7. What makes the candidate a good fit for this job?
  8. Would you re-hire the applicant?
  9. What are the candidate's most significant weaknesses and strengths?
  10. Does the applicant get along well with others?
  11. What advice can you give me to successfully manage the applicant?
  12.  What additional training would they benefit from?
  13. How do they respond to constructive criticism?
  14. What else do I need to know about the applicant that I didn’t already ask?
  15. Who else should I speak to about the candidate that can provide a different perspective?

Listen carefully for any red flags. Take meticulous notes of whom you called, when you called, and what you talked about. When it comes to HR matters, it’s prudent to document everything.

What’s an informal reference check?

Once upon a time, the only way to successfully gauge a prospective employee’s aptitude and skill level were to have a conversation with a former supervisor. With the advent of social media and the cyber footprints people leave all over the Internet, it’s easier than ever to get a better idea of the person hiding behind the professional mask.

Informal reference checks (otherwise known as deep reference checks or backdoor reference checks) continue to be widely used when hiring for executive roles. The practice refers to obtaining information about an applicant from a source other than those specifically listed on the candidate's resume.

However, informal reference checks remain a little controversial because some people consider them unnecessary intrusions into employees' privacy. Others think they’re fair game if you use public sources of information and let the employee know you’ll be doing them. 

Conducting informal reference checks

There are all kinds of ways to find more about a prospective employee than merely speaking to the people they list as references. Here are a few:

Social Media 

Use social media to discover people your future employee worked with. Start by googling the prospective employee and find out which social media channels they use.

For example, do they engage in a lot of back-and-forth banter about work with someone on LinkedIn? Are they connected to Twitter users you know, or do they regularly comment on someone's blog? Check to see if the applicant has a personal blog or an online community they’re part of. These sites can give you all kinds of information about the person.

Do a LinkedIn search and see what connections you might have in common with the candidate. One caveat is the people a job seeker knows on LinkedIn might never have worked with them. That’s why you shouldn’t immediately call connections you have in common. Instead, see if you can discover which people worked with the individual.

You can also check an applicant’s LinkedIn endorsements and recommendations to find people to use as references. An endorsement is a job skill that a colleague or friend backs a person on. A recommendation is a note recommending the LinkedIn user for a job.

Alumni groups

Alumni groups are always an excellent source of knowledge about a prospective employee. An individual’s reputation at their university can say volumes about them. You can obtain information about alumni groups from Facebook, LinkedIn, or university websites.

In-person meetings

There are often only a few degrees of separation between you and people who can give you information about a job seeker. Taking these individuals out for a latte is an excellent way to get this information. In-person meetings allow you to read subtle body language cues, telling you a lot about the person's experience with the candidate.

Other possibilities 

When calling the references provided by the candidate, don’t forget to ask, “Who else worked with the individual I might be able to talk to?” This will likely bring up at least a few possibilities that can provide you with top-notch information you can use to make a hiring decision

The person you’re talking to might not be able to be brutally honest with you because they’re too close to the candidate. However, they might be able to put you in touch with someone who can. 

Informal reference checks best practices

Here are some best practices for conducting informal reference checks:

  • Obtain permission from the applicant to do reference checks on them. Consent must be in writing, and it’s okay to use email.
  • Assume the person you talk to will get back to the candidate about your reference checks.
  • Never contact anybody at the candidate’s current workplace unless you have the candidate’s explicit permission. You don’t want to tip anybody off that they’re looking for a new job.
  •  See if you can ascertain how credible your source is. Even if you think the people giving you this information are trustworthy, be careful about relying on their word. There are reasons for a bad reference that go beyond lousy work performance.

Reference check red flags

Here are some warning signs to watch out for when you elicit feedback from references:

Horrendous feedback

If a reference doesn't offer up a glowing assessment of a candidate, that should be an automatic red flag. Just don’t take it at face value. Dig deeper to discover why. 

You might find out that your prospective employee is getting a bum rap because of interpersonal conflicts that had little to do with work. If you start to suspect this is true, call other references to find out more about the feedback you're questioning.

Excessively glowing reviews

If the feedback you’re hearing sounds too good to be true, that’s a warning sign that your suspicions might be accurate. References who are honest will share with you everything that’s both good and bad about the applicant.

If the reference cannot come up with a single area where the candidate can improve, you’re probably not getting the unvarnished truth.

Hints not to call certain people

If an applicant submits references and then gives you not-so-subtle hints that you shouldn't call certain people on the list, that's a red flag. Similarly, if you try to reach a particular reference only to find out you've been given a wrong number, that's an unmistakable sign that there’s something rotten in Denmark. 

Before jumping to conclusions, allow the job seeker to provide you with the correct information.

Factual information only

Some employers might only supply factual references. That is, merely confirming the name, job title, and employment dates. This could indicate a less than stellar work history or an employer whose policies don’t allow for further elaboration. In cases such as these, replace open-ended questions with ones that elicit yes or no responses.

Troubling discrepancies

If a former supervisor tells you something that doesn’t jibe with what the applicant said, that’s a cause for concern. Ask the person providing the reference additional questions to make sure you're not misunderstanding what they're saying. Afterward, offer the candidate a chance to explain the discrepancies.

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