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How To Conduct A Real Reference Check

How to conduct a real reference check

Those of us who have read the books Top Grading or Who: The A Method for Hiring know that there are two kinds of reference checking. There’s in-depth reference checking, and the alternative fast reference checking using text messaging and email. With companies hire lots of low value, high volume recruitment, then reference checking by email or text messaging may be fine. But for high value, management, customer-facing and almost every other role we recommend in-depth reference checking.

The first thing to consider is the reference contacts themselves. Rather than use the candidate-provided list, ask them for the contact info of their direct supervisor for each job. That way you’ll get the information from someone who can tell you if they met the performance requirements of their last role. 

You ought to do a minimum of three reference checks of supervisors/direct manager. If you have time, then you can check with two co-workers or customers and two subordinates, depending on the role. So, for a high-level management role, you might do up to seven references: three bosses, two peers/customers, and two subordinates. Look at it as an opportunity to get a complete idea of what your candidate is like to work with. 

But before asking any questions, always be recruiting! You never know if the person you’re talking to is open to a new opportunity as well. Be interested in what they say and ask them a few questions, if they have the time. How long have they worked there? What do they like about working there? Use that information to segue into a relevant opportunity. 

Here are some basic questions you can ask when conducting a reference check:

  • How did you work together?
  • What were their biggest strengths?
  • What were their biggest areas of improvements they needed back then?
  • How would you rate their performance 1–10? Why?
  • Would you hire them back to work on a team closely with you?

If you have conducted a fully Top Graded Interview, you might call back to what the candidate shared with you: “Mr Smith said he struggled with time constraints. Can you tell me more about that?”

Now, there are some things you ought to watch out for. Usually, if they just confirm the dates of employment and say something like “we wish them luck in all their endeavours”, that is a bad sign. Now, some companies have policies in place stating that they can only give out dates of employment and nothing more–usually for liability reasons. However, I’ve found that if somebody really thinks that a person is good, they’re going to do more than that.

If you have references not calling back, or a lot of “um” and “er”, then that likely means there were problems at work. Listen for hesitations and ask for clarification if you have any tingling of a bad feeling. The absence of enthusiasm is a terrible sign.


Kael Campbell is President and Lead Recruiter of Red Seal Recruiting Solutions, a company providing recruitment services in mining, equipment and plant maintenance, utilities, manufacturing, construction, and transportation. When he is not recruiting, Kael spends as much time as possible with family in the great outdoors and on the water. He volunteers his time as a Board Member of the Entrepreneurs Organization of Vancouver Island. You are invited to subscribe to our employer newsletter or submit your resume.