Evaluating an Applicant’s References

Checking references is usually done at or near the end of the interview process. Too often it is not done well or thoroughly enough.

When you have reached the stage in which you are close to making a decision on a candidate, ask him or her to supply up to five references, at least one reference from every job that he or she has held. In addition to professional references, the candidate may offer a reference letter from a former professor or colleague.

If I have an HR person on board I might have him or her do the initial reference checks for key employees, such as verifying employment. But for top hires I might call their most recent manger myself (assuming the candidate has given permission to do so). Otherwise, I would have the HR person do all the reference checking but keep detailed notes.

Reference checking should not be done in writing; you will get little in the way of verification. All you probably will get is name, rank, and serial number. Because of the potential liability, most companies are reluctant to put anything in writing.

When you call a reference, prepare to spend some time on the phone. Build rapport, and get him or her to feel comfortable with you. Assure the person that everything will be held in the strictest confidence, and that you want to make sure you are doing right by the candidate and your company.

Many companies today will not give references because of the potential legal liability. However, sometimes they won’t give out references when the employee left under pressure or was outright fired.

So if a company won’t give a reference, you need to at least verify the candidate’s employment dates and job title and then dig deeper into previous jobs to see if you can get a reference. Would I hire someone even if I can’t get past references? Generally, yes. However, I would think twice about hiring a person with a position of financial responsibility such as for CFO if I can’t get people to give me a reference—that was a lesson I learned the hard way!

Takeaways You Can Use

  • A professional HR person should do the initial applicant vetting.
  • Verification is difficult—be persistent.

About Bob Adams

Bob Adams is a Harvard MBA serial entrepreneur. He has started over a dozen businesses including one that he launched with $1500 and sold for $40 million. He has written 17 books and created 52 online courses for entrepreneurs. Bob also founded BusinessTown, the go-to learning platform for starting and running a business.