Checking the references of prospective employees is often left until late in the
recruitment process, if it’s done at all. Checking references is a great tool for deciding between equally qualified candidates, or for weeding out applicants who won’t be suited to your organisation’s culture. It can be very hard to tell what someone is like to work with on a day-to-day basis from a formal interview.
It’s also increasingly important to check references as CVs can be incomplete or even contain misrepresentations. There are currently a lot of jobseekers on the market, and the extreme pressure of applying for a limited number of jobs can lead some candidates to knowingly exaggerate their credentials and experience in an effort to stand out above their competition.
In a recent survey by ELAS, one in three managers have admitted to lying or exaggerating about their qualifications in the past. With many charity fraud cases in the headlines recently (the NFA estimates that charities lose 1.7% of their annual income to fraud), it’s even more important for non-profit organisations to protect themselves and vet potential employees prior to offering them a job.
In the case of senior employees, if there is an inconsistency or misrepresentation on a CV and the truth comes out, it can be potentially extremely embarrassing for the organisation involved and potentially damage relations with their donors. Take the recent scandal that ensued when Yahoo’s then-Chief Executive Scott Thompson was found to have an "inadvertent error" on his CV.
When is the best time to conduct checks?
The best time to check references generally varies depending on the responsibility of the role in question and the amount of time spent recruiting. You don’t want to get to the end of a lengthy recruitment process, only to find out your chosen candidate’s references don’t stack up. However, obtaining references can be a time-consuming process and too difficult to do for every candidate in the running.
Many employers leave reference checks until after the first-stage interviews, when they have narrowed down the pool of potential employees. A previous employer’s opinion can be extremely useful at this stage to decide between candidates with similar experience or qualifications. Another approach is to conduct a two-stage reference checking process, with written requests to verify basic details made early on, followed by detailed telephone conversations later with previous line managers of the favourite candidates.
You will probably have to wait until after a conditional offer is made to the candidate to contact their current employer.
What’s the best way to do it?
There are essentially two ways in which you can get references – in writing or over the telephone. While a written reference may be sufficient for a junior role, other roles are likely to require a phone conversation to get anything but the most basic information.
Some organisations have a policy of not giving references, and will only confirm basic employment details, while others try to shunt you off to the HR department. However, be persistent and try to speak to a line manager, as they will give you the most useful information. Contact the referees in advance (or ask the candidate to do so) and book in a specific time for your conversation.
Who should you talk to?
As mentioned above, a previous line manager of the candidate’s is best, even if they have since left the organisation, as they will have direct experience of managing the candidate on a day-to-day basis. If the candidate has lost contact with their previous line manager, suggest they use LinkedIn to track them down.
Don’t bother with personal references, as it’s highly unlikely you’ll get objective feedback from a candidate’s friends or family. If they’ve had no previous paid employment, talk to someone who has worked with them on a volunteer or extracurricular basis.
If you have any doubts as to whether a referee is genuine, always ring back the organisation’s main number to check their identity.
Please note, you should always have your candidate’s permission to contact referees. Many jobseekers will prefer you not to contact their referees until an offer is made and accepted, especially if they are a current employer. If you have a signed statement of permission from a candidate, it may be worth attaching this to any initial email making contact with a referee to reassure them.
What should you ask?
Essential questions for basic written references include:
Dates of employment
Job title and main responsibilities
Attendance record and number of days sick leave taken
If they were reliable, honest, hardworking etc
Any disciplinary actions taken against them
If there are any reasons why they should not be employed
Questions for more detailed telephone interviews include:
What were the main responsibilities of the candidate in their last role?
What are the candidate’s greatest strengths?
Do you think the candidate is qualified for this new role?
What specific qualities does the candidate have that will help them fulfil these responsibilities?
What kind of management style did the candidate respond best to?
What sort of office environment did the candidate work best in?
How well did the candidate handle a specific skill or situation?
What was the candidate’s reason for leaving?
Would you rehire this candidate?
Always make sure questions are as open-ended as possible, not ones that solicit simple yes or no answers, and let the referee do most of the talking. Don’t ask leading questions – let the referee supply the information instead, eg instead of “John Smith has told us that one of his key responsibilities was x – is that correct?” ask “What were some of John Smith’s key responsibilities?”.
Don’t ask questions that are designed to solicit negative comments, eg “What are this candidate’s weaknesses?”. Most referees will feel uncomfortable giving bad feedback on a previous employee, and are likely to clam up altogether. Instead, you need to coax information out of them and intuit negative feedback from what is NOT said.
Don’t ask questions which are too general or open to interpretation, eg “What is your impression of this candidate’s character?”. It’s best to stick to the skills involved in the candidate’s old and new positions. Make sure you probe sufficiently into their responsibilities – previous volunteers can be particularly prone to over-inflating their duties.
Don’t forget to check unpaid staff
Reference checks are also an excellent idea for potential volunteers or trustees, particularly if they will be coming into direct contact with your supporters. The Charity Commission estimates that only 23% of charities carry out checks on prospective trustees.
With these unpaid staff, it is even more important to make sure the candidate is comfortable with the nature and timing of reference requests before you contact referees.
Some things to remember…
Stay legal when requesting references. Thomas Mansfield have produced some legal guidelines to conducting references and other background checks.
Be consistent when comparing candidates. It’s best to prepare your questions in advance and keep detailed notes of the answers so you don’t stray into unconscious bias.
While TPP only supply reference checks as standard for our temporary candidates, all our candidates are interviewed face-to-face before we send over their details, enabling us to pick up any inconsistencies or cultural mismatches prior to shortlisting and allowing us to supply a consistently high quality of employees.
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