It’s a buyers’ market when it comes to job hunting at the moment, with dozens – or even hundreds – of people applying for each vacancy, how do you weed out the people who are worth employing from the ones who don’t make the grade? Recruitment is expensive and time-consuming, and making the wrong decision can leave you with other members of staff trying to cover work and being faced with starting the recruitment process all over again. One of the key checks that any employer can do on the people they are hiring is checking references. But what is the most effective way to do this?

When to Check References

There is no right time to check an applicant’s references in the recruitment process. If the role you are trying to fill is high profile or involves a long recruitment process with interviews and assessments, you don’t want to get to the end of the entire process and discover that there is an issue with references. On the other hand, it’s pointless tying up staff time in checking references for dozens of people applying for an entry-level admin position. Most employers take a middle ground and take up references after the first round of interviews, when they are down to the final one or two candidates. It’s good practice to wait until you have made a job offer before contacting current employers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get started on chasing up previous employers or character references.

Written References

Many employers have a standard format for issuing written references which just show the dates of someone’s employment, and their job title. These are often known as “tombstone references”. Employers wish to stick to purely factual references, often to avoid conflicts with previous employees who dispute any opinions given. Character references provided by a family member or friend are also pointless – nobody’s going to give their sister or best friend a bad reference. Similarly, beware of references which are provided by someone on a generic email address such as Gmail or Hotmail. How do you really know that it’s a previous employer who is sending you emails, and not the candidate themselves?

Pick Up the Phone

Often, a better way of getting a real flavour of how someone performed in their previous jobs is to contact an employer directly. People are more likely to speak openly than commit their thoughts to paper or email. Always start the conversation by assuring them that any comments will be treated in confidence. Try to ask open questions; for example, ask a previous employer to talk about a candidate’s role, rather than asking them to confirm in a yes or no answer what the candidate has told you. Previous or current employers are unlikely to want to dish the dirt on a candidate, but it’s a good tactic to ask about reasons for leaving a position, or relationships with co-workers. What a previous employer doesn’t say is sometimes just as important as what they do say, so learn to read between the lines.