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Terms of Reference

– By Jayne Morris

Checking the references of prospective employees is often left until late in the recruitment process, if it’s done at all. But omitting this crucial part of the recruitment process can be a grave error. Checking references is a great tool for deciding between equally qualified candidates, or for weeding out applicants who won’t be suited to your organisation’s culture. It can be very hard to tell what someone is like to work with on a day-to-day basis from a formal interview.

When is the best time to conduct checks?

You don’t want to get to the end of a lengthy recruitment process only to find out your chosen candidate’s references don’t stack up. However, obtaining references can be a time-consuming process and too difficult to do for every candidate in the running.

sept-002Many employers leave reference checks until after the first-stage interviews, when they have narrowed down the pool of potential employees. A previous employer’s opinion can be extremely useful at this stage to help decide between candidates with similar experience or qualifications.

Another approach is to conduct a two-stage reference checking process, with written requests to verify basic details made early on, followed by detailed telephone conversations later with previous line managers of the favourite candidates.

You will probably have to wait until after a conditional offer is made to the candidate to contact their current employer. 

What’s the best way to do it?

There are essentially two ways in which you can get references – in writing or over the telephone. While a written reference may be sufficient for a junior role, other roles are likely to require a phone conversation to get anything but the most basic information.

Some organisations have a policy of not giving references, and will only confirm basic employment details, while others try to shunt you off to the HR department. However, be persistent and try to speak to a line manager, as they will give you the most useful information. Contact the referees in advance (or ask the candidate to do so) and book in a specific time for your conversation. 

Who should you talk to?

As mentioned above, a previous line manager of the candidate’s is best, even if they have since left the organisation, as they will have direct experience of managing the candidate on a day-to-day basis. If the candidate has lost contact with their previous line manager, suggest they use LinkedIn to track them down.

Don’t bother with personal references, as it’s highly unlikely you’ll get objective feedback from a candidate’s friends or family. If you have any doubts as to whether a referee is genuine, always ring back the organisation’s main number to check their identity.

You should always have your candidate’s permission to contact referees. Many jobseekers will prefer you not to contact their referees until an offer is made and accepted, especially if they are a current employer. If you have a signed statement of permission from a candidate, it may be worth attaching this to any initial email making contact with a referee to reassure them. 

What should you ask?

Essential questions for basic written references include:

  • Dates of employment
  • Job title and main responsibilities
  • Attendance record and number of days sick leave taken
  • If they were reliable, honest, hardworking, etc.
  • Any disciplinary actions taken against them
  • If there are any reasons why they should not be employed

Questions for more detailed telephone interviews include:

  • What were the main responsibilities of the candidate in their last role?
  • What are the candidate’s greatest strengths?
  • Do you think the candidate is qualified for this new role?
  • What specific qualities does the candidate have that will help them fulfil these responsibilities?
  • What kind of management style did the candidate respond best to?
  • What sort of office environment did the candidate work best in?
  • How well did the candidate handle a specific skill or situation?
  • What was the candidate’s reason for leaving?
  • Would you rehire this candidate?

Always make sure questions are as open-ended as possible, not ones that solicit simple yes or no answers, and let the referee do most of the talking. Don’t ask leading questions – let the referee supply the information. So instead of “John Smith has told us that one of his key responsibilities was x – is that correct?” ask “What were some of John Smith’s key responsibilities?”.

Don’t ask questions that are designed to solicit negative comments, eg “What are this candidate’s weaknesses?” Most referees will feel uncomfortable giving bad feedback and are likely to clam up altogether. Instead, you need to coax information out of them and intuit negative feedback from what is NOT said.

Don’t ask questions which are too general or open to interpretation, eg “What is your impression of this candidate’s character?” It is best to stick to the skills involved in the candidate’s old and new positions. Make sure you probe sufficiently into their role to ensure they’re not over-inflating their duties.

Finally, remember to stay within legal guidelines when requesting references. And be consistent when comparing candidates. It’s best to prepare your questions in advance and keep detailed notes of the answers so you don’t stray into unconscious bias.


Jayne MorrisJayne Morris is CEO of TPP Recruitment, a specialist consultancy dedicated to supporting not for profit organisations, including charities, professional membership bodies and cultural institutions, as well as education, health and social care providers. TPP has offices in London and Newcastle.

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