Ten Ways to Improve Reference Checking and Save Time

Reference checking is one portion of the hiring process done with the least skill. There are lots of reasons for this:

  • No one is trained in how to do this.
  • It’s usually left as the last step. Everyone is tired and just wants to get to a decision.
  • Often, it’s done as a casual chat, with no form or structure.
  • Just as often, it’s done according to a formula, with rote questions, often framed as “yes” or “no”.
  • Sometimes this is even reduced to a “tick the box” exercise.
  • Often reference checking is left to a junior person.


Now, we all like to think we do this well (ok, most of us think that). The reality is that this is a difficult task, more difficult than most people realize.

The referee often has an unspoken loyalty to their ex-employee. Almost independent of the circumstances, no one wants to be the person to stop someone from getting a new job, even when they have been fired!

At the same time, the referee knows the candidate well, and has a wealth of information that can help you. The art is in getting that information.

Here are ten suggestions for improving this process:

  1. Make certain that you’re interview team are trained to do this well.
  2. Very early in your selection process explain to every candidate, preferably in writing, that “Our organisation places a real priority on checking references. We do it thoroughly and carefully. Somewhere during the process we may ask you to help us arrange these. Does that cause you any difficulties?”
  3. Arrange the reference check interview by having the candidate set it up. Give them a list of people you want to speak with. Then give them times in your diary when you will be free.

Ask them to set appointments for you to speak with each person. Note how quickly they get this done.

  1. Do the reference checking early in the process. Once you have a tentative short list, an administrative person should confirm all of the claimed degrees and certificates.

Meanwhile someone from the interview panel can be checking the references. It takes less time than a series of extensive interviews. If you knock out even one person at this stage, you have saved several hours of your time.

  1. Once basic rapport is established, explain to the referee something along these lines: “Bill is one of our serious candidates for this role. But we don’t want to do him the disservice of hiring him into a job where he will fail. Let me tell you about the job“.
  2. Then, after a brief overview of the role, describe the toughest parts of the job and the kind of hurdles this person would have to overcome.
  3. Then say, “For this reason I need you to be as candid as possible in describing Bill to me.
  4. You need a structured interview that will tell you about this person’s skills. Even more important though, you want to understand this person’s character. You will need questions that uncover this candidate’s character. Who are they, really?
  5. The interview should end with two questions, read verbatim: “ Smith, I’m putting my pen down now. Before we finish, is there anything else I should know about Bill”? This should then be followed by “If you had a chance to rehire Bill, would you do it without any reservations
  6. Take written notes of anything you’re happy for the. candidate to eventually read. The information from the referee should not be disclosed to the candidate. It can give you valuable clues about the candidate’s honesty when asked about their relationship with their various bosses.

Hiring the wrong person is a loss for everyone involved. My hope is that following these guidelines will help all of us avoid hiring the wrong person.


Dr. Byrne has been an independent Corporate Psychologist for over forty years. This material is taken from his latest book, Seeing Behind the Job Applicant’s Mask Before Your Hire: Secrets of a Corporate Psychologist