Referees, Reference Checks & Recruiters

Reference checks are more than a column of ticks on a template. Done well, they seal the deal between the preferred job applicant and a happy client. When I was executive recruitment consultant, I enjoyed  speaking to referees. I would get off the phone energised by the fresh insights I had about a candidate,  which helped confirm the person’s match for the role, and the value they’d bring to the organisation.

When should you provide names of referees?

Although you may be asked for referees early in the recruitment process, this is for expediency and the recruiter’s benefit – not yours. These details aren’t needed until after an interview or you’ve been short-listed for the position. It’s unethical and unprofessional for anyone to contact your referees before you’ve had a discussion (preferably an interview) with a recruiter about a position. Recruiters must seek your permission prior to contacting your referees.

Leave referee contact details off your resume – you risk them being contacted before you’ve even spoken to or met a recruiter. Read about the pitfalls in Nicole Underwood’s post here. Respect your referees’ privacy and time – only offer their details after you’ve indicated your interest in the job, and you’ve made progress in the selection process. Brief your referees and share any relevant information about the position – before you give contact details to a recruiter.

“References provide an accurate, third-party assessment of your strengths and weaknesses so managers can hire knowing full information…Given the option of either interviewing a candidate withoutchecking references or checking references without interviewing, I would choose the latter.” Claudio Fernández-Aráoz

Why do recruiters speak to referees?

In addition to verifying the basic facts about an individual’s experience and qualifications, referees bring so much more to the interview process.

Referees help to fill in the gaps, giving the recruiter a more complete picture about an applicant’s capabilities and potential to meet the job requirements. Any concerns the recruiter or client has about the candidate’s expertise and fit for the job – especially when the he/she doesn’t tick all the boxes, can also be addressed with a referee.

Recruiters often undertake a reference check before progressing the applicant to the short-list stage – and prior to meeting their client. Once the person has been identified as the preferred candidate for the job, the remaining referees will be contacted. A final job offer can be made after all of these checks have been satisfactorily completed.

Who should you nominate as referees?

People you’ve reported to in your last couple of roles will be the first referees sought by recruiters, regardless of the nature of your relationship with them.  And often a variety of referees gives recruitment consultants a 360 degree view of you, your performance, and how you work with others.

In his Harvard Business Review post How to Choose the Right References, Fernández-Aráoz  suggests providing a list of former bosses, peers, and subordinates at several previous places of employment. Former bosses are great at assessing strategic orientation and achievement drive; peers can help to measure influence; subordinates are often the best judges of leadership.

Where it’s difficult to provide referees from your current organisation, a recruiter may ask to speak to customers, service providers or other key external stakeholders who are familiar with your work.

It goes without saying that any referee should have a good understanding of your work, and be able to express this clearly during a conversation with a recruiter. I’ve spoken to famous people who couldn’t offer anything other than a character reference for a candidate. While they work well for community roles and tenancy applications, personal referees aren’t effective in a professional recruitment process.

A good recruiter will be open to and balance all referee feedback –  good, bad and indifferent. Share any concerns upfront with the recruiter who will guide you about the best people to approach.

What makes a good reference check?

The best reference checks are rigorous professional conversations, which can take 20 minutes or more. Once the basic details are verified (eg employment dates, qualifications, reporting relationships and accomplishments), the discussion will focus on attitude, capability, and fit.

Although each recruiter has their own approach, most questions will relate to the selection criteria for the position. Other questions may refer to specific issues raised by the recruiter or the client during the interview process. By the end of the conversation, the recruiter wants to feel confident that the individual meets their client’s requirements, and is a good cultural fit for the organisation. Only then does the job applicant become a short-listed candidate for the job.

Reference check conversations can be as different as the recruiters, candidates and referees involved. And the best reference checks occur when the referee is articulate and clearly informed about the candidate’s experience and career options.

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