How to enhance your reference calls

Asking for referrals or references is a common part of the recruitment process. However, most recruiters often fail to tap the full potential of this vital source of information. In this post, I will give you my top ten tips for increasing the usefulness of your reference calls.

1) Never call without a candidate’s permission

First and foremost, your candidates also have their own rights. When it comes to recruitments, you may collect and store a candidate’s information only with their express consent – so remember to always ask for their permission before making any reference calls! It’s never a good idea to call someone’s previous bosses out of the blue without asking the candidate first.

2) Inform your candidate about who you wish to call and ask for their permission

Most candidates will provide you with a list of references from the get-go, for example in their CV. However, don’t be content with just one list – instead, you should inform your candidate that you’d like to chat with their current or previous supervisor. You can even make obtaining such a reference a mandatory part of your recruitment process. It’s important that you always talk to someone who has been directly responsible for supervising your candidate, instead of someone who merely observed them from the sidelines. When it comes to recruiting key personnel, never settle for less than two calls.

3) Question #1: “How do you know this person?”

Don’t start by informing the reference about what your candidate has said. Instead, simply ask how they know each other. This will help you sniff out any possible family relationships, university buddies, or club memberships. These are important pieces of information when it comes to evaluating the reliability of a candidate’s references.

4) Never ask if they would recommend your candidate

The person provided their reference for a specific reason. That’s why there’s little point in asking this question, because of course they would recommend this particular candidate. Instead, it’s better to focus on the questions that a reference can’t bat away politely.

5) Use your reference calls for fact-checking

Verify any and all facts that are relevant to your recruitment decision. These include, for example, your candidate’s duration of employment, their roles and responsibilities, and the results they achieved. Compare the information you received from your reference call with the information provided by your candidate.

6) Be open about your concerns and ask for the reference’s experiences

If you feel concerned about, say, your candidate’s technical competence, ability to cope under pressure, or capacity for learning, you can ask their reference how these issues were reflected in their previous efforts.

7) Ask the reference to compare your candidate against the requirements of the role

You can inform the reference of the position that you’ve planned for your would-be employee. One good way to get an honest analysis is to ask if the person knows someone else who’d be an even better fit for the role. Comparing your candidate with this other person will help you gain a new perspective on their strengths and development areas. And who knows, maybe you’ll discover a few more potential candidates for the job.

8) Write everything down

Always transcribe you reference calls word for word. This will help you recall everything with perfect clarity. A written memo is also easier to distribute to everyone involved in the recruitment process. However, your candidate also has the right to read what you’ve written about them. That’s why you should always begin your call by informing the reference that you will be writing down what is said and that the candidate also has the right to access this information.

9) Finally, ask whether there’s anything else that you should know

By asking this, the reference can tell you about any additional details or issues about your candidate that a prospective employer should be aware of but that you did not necessarily know to ask.

10) Compare the information you’ve gathered from your reference calls with your other information

Cross-check the information you obtained from your calls with the information you’ve gathered from, for example, your candidate’s CV, interviews, or work simulations. This will help you verify or question the reliability of the information you’ve accumulated so far. It’s always a good idea to talk to your candidate directly about any inconsistencies you may have noticed, as this will help you fully clarify the situation before you make your recruitment decision.

Juho Toivola is a recruitment coach and occupational psychologist for the digital age whose passions include functional simplifications and knowledge-based management.