Small Business Hiring Tips: How to Check References to Hire Better People

How to Check References to Help You Hire Better PeopleCongratulations! You found a great candidate who has the skills you need and appears to be a good fit for your team. You’re ready to check references and make an employment offer. That’s an exciting feeling. And yet, it’s also a bit scary. Why? Because you’ve been fooled in the past. Maybe your perfect candidate turned out to be a less-than-perfect employee. You wonder what you missed and where you went wrong. That little voice in your ear keeps whispering, “You can’t afford to make another mistake.”

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you are targeting your ideal employee, openly and honestly communicating with them about the position, and asking Insightful Interview™ questions. The missing piece is often skipping or doing a poor job of checking references. Unfortunately, many organizations view this as a formality and skip it. After all, you asked all the right questions and the candidate gave you great answers. And, most businesses provide only verification of dates of employment, job title, and salary. However, according to a CareerBuilder survey, 69 percent of employers changed their mind about a candidate after speaking with a reference and 47 percent reported a less favorable opinion.

That’s the best reason for why you can and should talk to people who have worked closely with your candidate. Think outside of the box when asking for professional references. Some good sources for references include: a former supervisor, professors, or others who have direct knowledge of your candidate’s skills and abilities. For candidates without a lengthy work history, ask for personal references from people who have known the candidate and interacted with them. Additional sources could be leaders of volunteer projects, community service projects, scout troops, or coaches.

This may seem like a waste of time because great candidates provide references from people they know will speak well about them. The key is to be strategic with your questions to verify your understanding of your candidate’s knowledge, skills, abilities, and personality traits. You will want to verify the information on the resume because candidates have been known to stretch the truth a bit. Shocking, right? I once found a great candidate who indicated he had a degree. When I verified that with the professor he listed as a reference, it turned out that the candidate never actually graduated.

Here are a few reference questions should to ask:

1.    What is your relationship to the candidate.

This helps you understand the type of information you are likely to receive about your potential employee. A co-worker will have a different view from a manager or a vendor.

2.    How long did you work with the candidate?

Timing is everything. If the candidate worked with the reference for a brief time, the information will be less useful than if the working relationship spanned several years.

3.    What were the candidate’s job responsibilities?

This question can reveal whether a candidate has given you an accurate description of their role. Differences are red flags that deserve a deeper exploration.

4.    Could you describe a challenging or memorable experience you had with the candidate?

A common mistake in references is asking about strengths and weaknesses. Because the reference wants the candidate to get the job, many are hesitant to answer questions about weaknesses. This is where using Insightful InterviewÔ questions can help. Use that knowledge to craft an Insightful Reference question. My favorite interview question can also be a great reference question with a little tweaking. I change that question up a bit by reframing it to ask how a candidate grew while the reference worked with him or her.

Finally, a word of caution. Did you listen for what is said as well as what is not said?

Remember people generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for. When speaking with references, listen carefully for what seems out of place and ask follow-up questions to get specifics into the candidate’s behavior. Using active listening and follow-up questions, I learned that an otherwise awesome candidate could get overwhelmed and fail to ask for help during stressful periods. In this situation, this advance knowledge helped the manager be alert for signs of stress and intervene before a crisis situation occurred. It also gave the manager insight into the coaching and mentoring the candidate would require. In another organization, this knowledge may have caused the manager to change his decision to hire the candidate.

If you would like a free copy of my reference check form, click here.

What questions do you have about checking references? Click this link to schedule a complimentary Insight session. It’s an investment of 20 minutes of your time that will pay huge dividends.

Perhaps you haven’t gotten around to reading The YOLO Principle: The Ultimate Hiring Guide for Small Business yet. You can purchase your copy here or on You’ll get plenty of tools, templates, and step-by-step instructions to find and hire great employees.


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