Reference checks have long been part of any standard recruitment process. However, an increasing number of recruiters believe that referee checking is an outdated practice and often biased practice, because candidates nominate their own referees who are informed beforehand, and selected because they tend to give positive feedback.

Though some recruitment officers find reference checks as one of the least effective ways to evaluate job applicants, it is still currently a vital part in assessing a potential hire. It could become useless if recruiters miss out on relevant issues in the process. Research shows that there are three important aspects about reference checking that recruiters should be mindful of.

1. The informal referee

An ‘informal referee’ or an ‘informal recommendation’ is when a colleague or a boss or someone from the company who has a higher rank or influence gives an unprompted reference for an applicant. The usual scenario is that the referee asks a favour and is a friend or a family friend of the candidate.

Partisanship or nepotism is not new in workplaces. One way or the other, we have gained from it or contributed to it and its beneficial for the company if the referred applicants are suitable for the role.

The Administrative Science Quarterly published a 2018 research that studied more than 20,000 US applicants to a full-time MBA program. In the same process as a job application, candidates were evaluated based on past performance, formal references with letter of recommendation and informal references.

According to the result of the study, applicants with informal endorsements were more likely to get an interview than those with no informal recommendations. Even though these candidates got interviews, it didn’t automatically mean that they performed better after the program. Evidence from the study did show that endorsed applicants were surpassed by other applicants either academically or on the job market.

In an interview conducted by the researchers, some hiring officers attested that recommended candidates were better qualified though no much proof could be provided to support their claims. One evidence that could verify the hiring officers’ assessments is the MBA program study mentioned previously. MBA applicants were more likely to engage with campus clubs, like leadership roles, and they contributed more as alumni, leading to a thought that role effectiveness might depend on the company’s culture.

Another issue in the workplace is if the candidate becomes an employee and was recommended by a superior or an officer with a high position in the company, that the employee may further receive unmerited promotions or increase in pay. The company may then be open to complaints like favouritism or unlawful discrimination.

It’s not recommended to completely disregard applicants with informal referees. It would be better to also check them based on information gathered through formal references, interviews and other assessment tools.

2. Who knows the candidate best?

When recruiters conduct reference checks, it’s quite common for them to encounter referees that couldn’t give particular examples of a candidate’s work. Some couldn’t even remember who that employee was.

It’s not the applicant’s intention to mislead recruiters when they list individuals they didn’t work closely to as reference. It’s just that having the organisations’ CEO or Director in the reference section makes their resumes more appealing to potential employers. The only problem is that these high ranking officers may not even remember their name unlike their direct superiors who they report to on a daily basis. This scenario is true especially for big companies.

In a 2017 report by SkillSurvey, a reference check website, co-workers were found to give feedback about an applicant’s personality and interpersonal conduct, while managers provided task-related feedback like being reliable or meets deadlines. A candidate’s job performance is significant, but a potential hire’s interpersonal behaviour is going to be more important.

3. The questions we’re not asking

International Journal of Selection and Assessment published a 2019 study that observed more than 900 individuals who gave reference checks in the previous year. The research showed that 73.7% of the participants said that they were not asked about “a candidate’s work-related areas for improvement.”

The study was conducted in the US but the same thing is also happening here in Australia. “Bad reviews are illegal” is a prevalent myth in Australian business, but it is just that – a myth. As long as the reference gives an accurate and fair feedback, the employer shouldn’t be at risk of defamation or any legal threat.

The researchers recommended that recruiters should provide applicants with a guideline when they collect information about their references.

They suggested that candidates should choose referees who:

  • They have worked with recently
  • Have been directly involved in their work
  • Are aware they’ll receive a call regarding their application

The applicant should also make sure to prepare the referees they listed down to what the recruiter will ask during the phone call. What to ask a referee to vouch you for? How do you ask them?

According to a research, a large number of employers look for the following competencies in candidates (grouped and listed in order of priority):

  1. Communication: oral communication, listening skills, written communication, presentation skills
  2. Teamwork: adaptability, ability to value the opinion of others, cross-cultural sensitivity, ability to follow a leader,delegation skills
  3. Leadership: integrity, drive, innovation and creativity, ability to inspire others, strategic vision
  4. Technical: quantitative analysis, qualitative analysis, core business knowledge, technology, specific language skills
  5. Managerial: managing decision-making process, managing task environment, managing strategy and innovation,managing human capital, managing administrative activities.

Furthermore, referees are also often asked of the following about the candidate:

  • Effectiveness in a role
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses

Now you know what to ask, next question is how to ask someone to be your referee. When we get asked by our clients with this question, we provide them with a template that they can tailor when they email their prospect referee.

Feel free to use this template as a guide when emailing your chosen referees. We’ve included a few others you may wish to include.

Dear [insert name]

I am in the process of gathering references as I update my resume for my forthcoming job search.

Specifically, the roles I will be seeking in future, require skills including [choose no more than 2 hard skills that you can back up with evidence – research, analysis, cash handling, event planning – an important skill listed in the job description].
I would like to ask you to act as referee for me for these skills, for the period [month, year] to [month, year] that I[worked/volunteered/interned] at [insert company name].

While working for [insert company/organisation name], I[completed/performed/supervised] the following [list the tasks/duties and the results of your work] that required these skills and hope that you might be able to speak to
these areas should a reference be sought from a prospective employer.

In my resume, I plan to provide an example of [X skill] and will use the example of [describe the time you used this skill].

Would you please provide a few words by return email as to how I performed that task? If so, I have listed some of the areas my prospective employer will be calling for references about. I would be very grateful if you could jot a few points below that I can align my experience with.

[DELETE ANY NOT REQUIRED – select only one or two areas per referee, and ensure that these areas are those theycan knowledgeably report on, and that you can provide example of.]

• [Provide an example to refresh their memory if possible/relevant]
• How effective was I in the performance of the role?
• Why do you say that?
• If my performance was measured, how was it measured?

• [Provide an example to refresh their memory if possible/relevant]
• What did you think my strengths were in the role?
• Why do you say that?

• How would you describe my level of technical skills and knowledge?

• How well do you think I managed written and verbal communications?
• Did I speak confidently, clearly, fluently and expressively, and adapt my interpersonal communication style to suit different people or situations?
• Did I write simply, clearly and concisely in a well-structured and logical way?
• Did I communicate opinions, information and key points convincingly to gain the agreement of others?
• [Provide an example to refresh their memory if possible/relevant]

• How well do you think I managed relationships?
• Did I quickly develop a positive rapport with people at all levels in an organisation?
• Was I able to build, maintain and use networks of contacts?
• Did I show respect and sensitivity towards cultural and religious differences?
• [Provide an example to refresh their memory if possible/relevant]

• Did I understand the relationship between issues and how they might be part of a larger complex problem?
• Did I gather and analyse data from multiple sources of information, and probe for further information where required?
• Did I make rational and considered judgements and decisions?
• [Provide an example to refresh their memory if possible/relevant]

• Was I able to quickly learn new technology, processes and information?
• Did I actively seek out opportunities for personal, professional and organisational improvement?
• Did I offer new ideas, approaches or insights, and approach problems creatively to find workable solutions?
• [Provide an example to refresh their memory if possible/relevant]

• [Provide an example of when you had to manage a situation that there was pressure in to refresh their memory if possible/relevant]
• How well do you think I dealt with pressure?
• Did I keep my emotions under control during difficult situations?
• Did I work productively in a high pressure environment?
• Was I able to adapt and respond well to change and ambiguity, and make the most of the opportunities it presented?

• [Provide an example to refresh their memory if possible/relevant]
• How would you describe my supervisory skills and style in relation to the supervision of X in my role?

• [Provide an example to refresh their memory if possible/relevant]
• Were you satisfied with the way I interacted with different levels of management and other employees in the company?

• [Provide an example to refresh their memory if possible/relevant]
• Are there any other comments you would like to add?

Thank you so much in advance for your help.

Kind regards
[insert your name here]

You can download the complete How and What To Ask Potential Referees guide below.

(updated 2021)

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