Background Checks for Employment: What Employers Need to Know

<div class="grey-callout"><h2>In This Guide You’ll Learn</h2><p><ul><li>The importance of taking references, and taking them early.</li><li>How to arrange reference calls.</li><li>What to ask during calls.</li><li>How to interpret the information provided by referees.</li></ul></p></div>

So far in the recruitment process, all the information you have is from the candidate, so always ask for references! Employers are sometimes tempted to skip this step because they don’t understand the value of the information that can be gained from a thorough reference. Maybe they’ve been fobbed off with cursory information in the past, or feel short of time and energy and just want the recruitment task to be over. Believe me, it’s better to put in a bit of effort now getting good information than having to deal with the pain of a mis-hire down the line. I’ve seen companies not bother with references and get badly burned!

Take References Before the Job Offer

  • I’m a bit unconventional in recommending that you take references before offering candidates a job. Once you make an offer it’s hard to withdraw it if you receive a bad reference, so it’s much better to talk to referees earlier.
  • If you’ve been following my advice then you should have reminded the candidate several times about the Promise of a Reference Call (see our guide: How to Carry Out Telephone Interviews.

You Should Make Reference Calls and You Should Choose Who to Speak to

  • It’s best for the reference calls to be done by an experienced member of the Recruitment Team.
  • Don’t bother with reference checking agencies. They just confirm things like qualifications and safeguarding status and won’t give you the richer kinds of information you need to assess if a candidate is suitable.
  • Don’t let recruitment agencies or headhunters carry out reference checks as their commissions depend on the person being hired.
  • Candidates will want you to speak people who they know will say positive things. To get a balanced view you need to decide who you need to talk to – ideally at least three former line managers. You might also try to speak to ex-colleagues, or even to former customers if the candidate’s former employer has gone out of business. At this point you won’t be speaking to their current employer. You’ll only do this after the candidate has accepted your job offer (read the guide: How to Make a Job Offer).

Get Candidates to Arrange the Reference Calls

  • The traditional way of requesting references in which the employer contacts referees in writing is slow and often leads to minimal information.
  • You’ll get better information and reduce your workload if you have the candidate set up the calls for you. Tell them who you want to speak to.
  • Strong candidates are good at doing this because they’re confident that they’ll be spoken well of.
  • Be wary of candidates who are unwilling or unable to set up calls.
  • Some companies don’t allow employees to give official references. Calling it a “personal reference call” often gets round this problem.
  • If you’re having trouble getting a referee to have a conversation with you, consider the possible reasons. Without placing too much weight on the actions of someone you don’t know, could their reluctance indicate a problem with the candidate?

What to Ask During the Reference Call

You can download a detailed Reference Call Script at Guides & Resources section of our website. Here are a few tips for making the call:

  • Start the call by asking the referee about their connection with the candidate. Ask them about the person’s strength and weaknesses. Invite them to rate the candidate’s performance on a scale of 1 to 10.
  • You should ask them about the candidate’s reason for leaving and see if it’s consistent with the candidate’s explanation at interview.
  • Most people don’t like giving negative references, so be alert and read between the lines.
  • Lukewarm praise is often a bad sign – you’re looking for an enthusiastic response.
  • Remember not to ask anything discriminatory such as a candidate’s marital status or religion.
  • A great final question is “Would you rehire them?” This will often give you a sense of how the referee really felt about the candidate leaving.
  • At the end, thank the referee and say that you’d be happy to return the favour when needed. It’s good to follow up with a thank-you email too.

Reflect on What You’ve Heard

  • You’ve come this far in the recruitment process and you might be keen to get it over with. Maybe it feels like you’re going to offer the candidate a job come what may.
  • Take a breather and really think about what you’ve been told. Sometimes what seem like small issues turn out to indicate bigger ones. Even if they don’t say anything particularly damning, a referee’s tone might betray a lack of enthusiasm and confidence in a candidate. Hiring managers often want to fill the vacancy as quickly as possible, and only when they later have to dismiss an unsuitable hire realise that they didn’t hear alarm bells going off during the reference call.

What to Do in the Event of a Bad Reference

  • If you receive a bad reference you need to first reflect on whether the referee is credible. Some people are unprofessional and dishonest. If you suspect that this is the case with a referee, then don’t write off the candidate; see what other referees have to say.
  • If the referee does seem credible then then you’ll need to have a conversation with the candidate. Tread carefully because references are given in confidence. You might say: “I had a chat with one of your referees and a few issues were raised. I wanted to get your side of the story. I can’t be more specific because the reference was given confidentially. What do you think might have been raised?” See what comes up and carefully consider whether you need to reject the candidate.

<div class="grey-callout"><h2>Key Takeaways</h2><p><ul><li>Take references before making a job offer.</li><li>Someone on the Recruitment Team should decide who to talk to and  then make the calls. Don’t leave calls to reference checking firms and recruitment agencies.</li><li>Get candidates to set up calls and be wary of those who are unwilling to do so.</li><li>Ask referees about candidates’ strengths and weaknesses and make sure to read between the lines because no one likes giving a bad reference.</li><li>Don’t rush to hire before reflecting on what you’ve heard.</li><li>If you receive a bad reference, consider how credible the referee is and talk to the candidate if necessary.</li></ul></p></div>

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Geoff Newman has dedicated his entire career to recruitment. He has consulted for many well-known international brands, and worked with over 20,000 growing businesses. He has helped fill over 100,000 jobs.

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We literally wrote the book on...

The secrets of great recruitment

The Secrets of Great Recruitment is a top-seller. It is easy to read and wastes no time in giving powerful actionable strategies you can use straight away.

Book cover for The Secrets of Great Recruitment