Do you remember to ask for references when recruiting?
[This is part 9 of PeopleTools’ series of articles on the optimal recruitment process. You can find an overview of the other articles here: “The Ultimate Guide to Recruitment”]
Once the candidates for the second interview have been selected, the next step is to collect references.
Many companies today collect references and use them in their overall assessment of a candidate.
But many also find this part difficult.
Because pulling references is more than just calling someone up and asking a few random questions.
In this article, we highlight why it’s important to get references, how to prepare and suggest questions to ask the reference person and when in the process to get references.
What is a reference?
A reference is a person the candidate provides who can and will comment on a former employee/colleague/manager and their ability to perform their job – both on a personal and professional level. In other words, it’s other people’s assessment and perception of the candidate.
Why get references?
Obtaining references is a great tool to supplement the recruitment process, giving you a second opinion on some of the areas of attention or concern you should have with different candidates and perhaps some areas of attention you didn’t realize you should have.
Former employers, managers, co-workers and colleagues know how the person works and how they have fit into a team of colleagues in the past and can add to the knowledge of how the person will be in a work environment.
The purpose of obtaining references is to clarify and confirm or deny the information and impressions that have emerged during the interviews. It’s a great way to complement and nuance the impression you have of the candidate.
How to prepare before taking references
To get the most out of candidate references, it’s important to prepare and consider the following:
- Who talks to the referees?
- Approximately how much time should be allocated to each referee?
- What references should be used? (Manager, colleague, employee?)
- How many references do I need to get?
- When in the process should references be obtained?
- What focus points should be highlighted for each candidate?
Get others’ input
The first step in preparation is to get feedback from the other members of the hiring committee: Are there things they’ve noticed? Do they have any concerns? What do they want to know more about?
This gives us a better basis to dive deeper when talking to the candidate’s references and get as relevant information as possible.
Once you’ve got the input of others and possibly some areas of focus or concern, it’s time to prepare the questions to ask the referees.
It’s important to consider if there is anything you need to address and if there are any professional or personal competencies in relation to your business. position, which needs to be investigated further.
Although the more structured the interview is, the higher the assessment value of an interview, it’s important to customize the questions so that you can ask about and explore the areas of the candidate that you may be unsure about.
At the end of the article, you’ll find suggestions for questions to ask the referee.
How to get references
When should you get references?
As a rule of thumb, you should pull references between the two interviews and after any tests.
This is because you have better knowledge of the candidate and their strengths and weaknesses, which you can use the insight and experience of a former manager/employee/colleague to assess and elaborate on.
How many references should you take – and who?
The more references you take, the more nuanced the picture of the candidate becomes. But of course, there are some time and resource considerations that speak against this. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to take 2-3 references.
These referees should have different relationships to the candidate, such as former manager, colleague and employee, so you get references from multiple business-relevant sides. These can comment on the candidate from different angles, knowledge of the position, relationships and ‘power relations’.
How much time should be set aside?
It’s very individual – and can vary depending on the level and complexity of the position. Some references can be difficult to extract information from, while others find it easier.
It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to get a few opinions about the candidate from a reference. But if you want the information to be useful and nuanced, you need to set aside a little more time. Some references are succinct, while others are almost unstoppable.
It’s a good idea to start the call to the reference person by telling them approximately how long the conversation will last.
What value can references be given?
Of course, references are not 100% reliable and some can be more objective than others. That’s why it’s also important that you take a critical look at what each reference person says – and compare these statements with the other methods and tools used in the process.
Before talking to the referees, it is therefore important to consider what value the references can/should be given in the overall assessment of the candidate.
By using PeopleTools’ 2nd Opinion profile, you can partially avoid this issue. Because here you ask the candidate to fill out a personal profile and connect up to 3 respondents at the same time. Here, respondents are asked to rate the focus person based on a series of questions.
The report with the graphical overview provides a picture of how the focus person is perceived by others. This can be used, for example, to examine how the candidate perceives the respondents’ assessment and how the candidate relates to their own profile. This is a quick overview of the consistency of the references’ views on the candidate’s job behavior.
The legalities: What do you need to remember when obtaining references?
First and foremost, it is important to emphasize that the candidate must give explicit consent to contact former managers, employees or colleagues. The consent must be documented, either in writing or that several people have been present at an oral consent and it has been noted.
You may also only contact the references provided by the candidate. If you wish to contact anyone other than these, you will again need the candidate’s consent.
Cf. According to section 29 of the Danish Public Administration Act, it is therefore voluntary whether an applicant wishes to provide references. However, it is up to you as the hiring party whether lack of consent/references should influence the decision on whether to offer the candidate the position.
Obligation to take notes
When taking references, you must note the content of the information, cf. Section 13 of the Danish Public Access Act (on the obligation to take notes). The candidate has the right of access to these notes and must be kept for 6 months.
If crucial information emerges from the references that is so negative that you no longer wish to hire a candidate, the candidate must be consulted and given the opportunity to express their version of the reference’s story before the final decision to not proceed with the candidate is made.
Although this only applies to public workplaces, it’s still a good idea for private workplaces to inform the candidate and let them give their side of the story before a final decision is made.
Are there things you shouldn’t ask the referee?
Of course, when you ask for references, it should include information that is relevant to your business. position. This means that a reference may comment on the following areas:
- Working relationship
- Information provided by the candidate in connection with the application and CV
- Professional and personal competencies, tasks and results
- Performance and work capacity
This means that a former employer is NOT allowed to disclose information about purely private matters, including sexual, associational, political and criminal matters as well as information about health conditions, significant social problems and abuse, cf. Section 28 of the Danish Public Administration Act, Article 9 of the General Data Protection Regulation and Section 8 of the Danish Data Protection Act.
However, you may ask about these matters (but not health matters) if the candidate has given explicit and specified consent.
Suggested questions to ask when requesting references
To get as credible and nuanced a picture of the candidate from the reference person as possible, it’s important to ask open-ended questions and ask from different angles. You should only ask questions that the interviewee has a real opportunity to answer.
To begin with, it’s important to establish the reference’s relationship with the candidate, as this has an impact on their opinions and ‘credibility’:
- How is your relationship with [kandidat]?
- How long did you work together?
- What did you work on together?
Suggestions for general questions (depends on the requirements of the specific position):
- During which period was [kandidat] employed?
- What position did [kandidat] hold?
- What tasks did [kandidat] have?
- What were the responsibilities of [kandidat]?
- What is [kandidat] like as a colleague/employee/manager?
- How did [kandidat] do the job? (Focus on strengths/weaknesses, best at/less good at, etc.)
- How was [kandidat]’s relationship with his colleagues, manager and business partners?
- In the position that [kandidat] is in play for, they need [tasks, competencies] – how would you rate [kandidat] on these? (A description of the position the person will hold)
- How was [kandidat]’s performance?
- What results/successes did [kandidat] create?
- What are [kandidat]’s strengths? Both personal and professional
- What are [kandidat]’s weaknesses? Both personal and professional
- What does [kandidat] need to get better at?
- How would you characterize [kandidat]?
- What was the easiest and hardest thing to work with/lead [kandidat]?
- What was the reason [kandidat] left the job?
- Do you have any advice for a future boss/colleague?
- If given the opportunity, would you hire/work with [kandidat] again? If no – why?
- Is there anything you want to add?
- Is there anything you think I forgot to ask?
If managerial jobs:
What were [kandidat]’s leadership skills and qualities?
You need to make sure you have concrete examples of their statements.
Template for reference taking
Click on the image to download a printable template for reference taking.
- Listen: Listen to what the reference person is saying and don’t interrupt.
- Stick to the facts: It’s important to focus on what the reference says, rather than how they say it. Unless you know the person, you can’t know if they always speak in monotone or are having a bad day, for example.
- Ask open, specific questions: Avoid asking broad questions like “What can you tell me about X?”. Such questions lead to vague answers that don’t necessarily focus on things that are relevant to the job. Instead, ask open-ended questions and refer to information the candidate has provided during the interviews, such as “I understand that X helped implement a new payroll system. Can you tell me more about X’s role in that?” or “I understand that the department was under a lot of pressure due to the recent merger. Can you give me an example of how X got the new employees to work with X?”.
- Henriksen, Jens. Recruitment in a narrative perspective. Danish Psychological Publishing, 2013.