How can I conduct an effective reference check?

The goals of reference checking are twofold: to verify the information that your candidates have provided and to gain some candid insight into who your candidates really are and how they really behave in the workplace.

One way to encourage a positive response to your query is to have applicants sign an authorization permitting former employers to give information to you. When references know you have this release, they may be more willing to talk.

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A frequent question is "Would you rehire this person?" This question, however, gives those queried an out. "We have a policy against rehiring." So an alternative question might be: "If you were hiring for another company for the position of X would you hire her?" If the answer is no, then you should probe for the reasons why. Here are other questions to ask:

- How long have you known the candidate?

- What was your work relationship?

- How did the applicant get along with his or her associates?

- How did he or she work with his or her manager?

- What were the applicant's strong points?

- In what areas do you think the applicant needs help or added training?

- What personal attributes strengthened or weakened the candidate's effectiveness?

- How was the candidate's attendance, punctuality, etc.?

- What were the candidate's responsibilities and how well did he or she perform them?

- Why did the candidate leave the job?

The extent to which you contact references depends upon the position you are trying to fill. For instance, if the person will have access to sensitive information or money or could do personal harm to the public or other employees, then you might want to do a more substantial reference check than for someone with minimal contact with money, personal information, or customers.

How do I decide between two good candidates?

Deciding which applicant to hire isn't easy. But you can make a better decision if you separate facts from hunches—not that you should ignore your intuition. It's a good idea to take a few minutes between each interview to jot down what you think are the significant facts and list your hunches too. Both are important. But probably the most significant factor is a candidates' past accomplishments.

People who have succeeded in the past are more likely to succeed in the future. In addition, the accomplishments of which the candidate was most proud give you insights into his or her thinking about the nature of the work. If the applicant is especially proud of an accomplishment that you consider a part of the day-to-day routine, then you may have someone with limited growth potential. On the other hand, if you have someone who has accomplished something truly worth crowing about, then he or she may be worth scooping up.

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Before making the final decision, take a look at the job specifications. Let's assume you are filing the position of office manager. Applicant A takes great pride in telling you that she "kept the work flowing, put out fires, and saw that the work was done correctly." That's what the job calls for. But Candidate B tells you how she cut supply costs by contracting with a new vendor and found a way to eliminate redundancies in her past job. So who do you hire? Candidate A, whose past history suggests she will maintain operations as is, or Candidate B, who will likely introduce new cost- or time-saving policies or procedures?

Both candidates met the specifications for the job, but Candidate B outshone Candidate A.

Let's look at two other candidates, one who meets the specifications exactly and another candidate who has less experience but seems more interested in the work. Which of these two individuals would you hire? Unless the issue of experience is an imperative for holding the position, you might be wise to choose the individual who seems interested in the work—who doesn't see the salary was cut but does see the work as challenging and within her capability.

One frequent mistake managers make in deciding among candidates is choosing someone based on personality or appearance or some commonality. For instance, I knew a manager who hired an assistant manager because he came from the same part of town and went to the same high school. Needless to say, the manager and his new hire didn't get along at all.

If you take an immediate dislike to an applicant yet don't know why, but will have to work closely with the individual, it may be unfair to you both for you to hire the individual—unless you are willing to make a sincere effort to get along.

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