I am often asked:

“Sarah, why bother checking references? No one is going to provide a reference that won’t say favorable things.”

We’ve all seen those list of references most candidates provide at the end of the interview. They include a colleague, a friend or “personal” reference, maybe an old boss. And I agree, calling those people are likely a waste of time. For me the value isn’t necessarily in the reference calls, it’s in the CONVERSATION with the candidate about the references.

So when I ask:

“So Joe, I see you didn’t provide a contact from your last job. I will need to speak to someone. Can you send me the name and number for your Manager?”

I usually get one of three responses:

1.“Yes, absolutely. I will email you when I get home.” If they email you the name and number, THAT’S the reference you want to contact. Why wasn’t it their 1st choice? Are they afraid of something? If they don’t send anything, something is wrong. Follow up and if there is still no response, move on.

2. “I’ve lost touch with them, I don’t know how to contact them.” Guess what, we are well into the social media age. There is no one you can’t track down on social media either directly or indirectly. This is likely an excuse. I have even gone so far to ask them for a name and I will find them myself.

3. “Actually, I didn’t leave on the best terms so I’m not really comfortable providing a reference from that company”. Guess what, that’s ok! Not all people and organizations are a good fit and I admire the person’s honesty. This also gives you the opportunity to explore this issue. Ask the candidate about the circumstance of his or her departure. Is there anyone else that can verify his or her story such as a co-worker, human resources, ETC.

It’s THIS conversation that will give you the best insight into their background. My goal is to obtain contact information for their last three Managers (going back no farther than 5 years). If they can’t provide those references or have a really good excuse as to why not, I would see it as a huge flag. Also, it doesn’t hurt to contact all the references but I ALWAYS contact those not originally provided – the ones I had to dig for. They often have some of the best insights.

Sarah Mullins is the founder and CEO of uptreeHR, an outsourced Human Resource department for small to medium sized businesses. Sarah and her team are based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

To book a complimentary 30-minute consult with Sarah, click here.


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