Past performance is generally the best predictor of future performance, therefore reference checks are essential to hiring the best candidates.
Bruce Hellmich, Assistant Dean, School of Human Ecology shares these suggestions:
- Consider reference letters or evaluations an applicant provides during the interview process to be unreliable
- The same person should make all the calls to references to ensure consistency.
- All persons contacted should be asked the same basic set of questions. Variation will occur based on the answers given.
- Rely on phone contact with references—more likely to be frank than letters.
- Don’t stop at the first good reference you get. Call at least three.
UW Madison Search Handbook contains detailed guidelines for candidate references. Some highlights of that section include:
- You may not ask questions of a reference which you are not permitted to ask of the candidate at an interview.
- Take notes during telephone conversations with references so that a written record of the conversation may be added to the candidate's folder.
- "If the search committee wishes to contact select individuals about a candidate's qualifications, it may inform that candidate of its wishes. It is not necessary, however, to have the candidate's permission to make such calls. All questions asked and issues raised must, as with all references, be job-related and similar for all candidates." (UW Madison Search Handbook, pp 16-17)
- If members of a search committee receive unsolicited calls about a candidate, "it is advisable to ask the caller to restrict his or her remarks to job related issues." The names of the individuals should be retained (UW Madison Search Handbook, p. 17).
Questions to Ask
- Begin a reference call by describing the position plus four or five qualities the successful candidate would need to do the job well.
- Ask, “In your opinion, how well do you think this person would fit into this job?”
- Revisit any of the qualities the reference did not comment on.
- Ask how well the person gets along with co-workers.
- Ask how well the individual gets along with supervisors and upper management.
- If the reference says an individual didn’t get along with the supervisor, ask if other employees got along with the same supervisor. (Be cautious about hiring someone if two or more references refer to “friction” with upper management. Regardless of their skills, if they are unwilling to take direction, you may have great difficulty fitting them into your office or department.)
- If a reference has concerns about the applicant’s ability to do the job, try to specifically discuss those concerns with the next reference also.
- Ask, “Given what you know about this person, would you rehire them if you had an opportunity?”
- Once you have spoken to the references, ask, yourself, “Do their comments coincide with my opinions about this applicant’s ability to perform this job?” If not, be cautious about hiring this person. It is better to continue your search for a candidate even if that means re-advertising, than to hire someone with a questionable past performance.