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References: do employers really check?


Smart employers do!  Reference checking makes good business sense.    

There was a time when hiring managers would:  recruit at cocktail parties, (why use behavioural based interview questions?  “I like to keep things informal“), trust their guts (why take time to do references?  ”he seemed fine”), then shake hands on it (why draft an offer letter let alone an employment contract?  “I’m as good as my word”).

But when some of those employees became performance management “challenges”, managers could become resentful of the time they required, time that would have realized far greater returns on investment when devoted to high performers.   

With recruiting costs so high (actual and opportunity costs can be 1.5 to 2.5 times annual salary) and competition for great roles so fierce, hiring managers need to ensure they’ve chosen the best  fit person.  Spending a couple of hours up-front checking references should be a key step in every recruitment process;  this inevitably will save time and emotion down the road.

It’s true that some employers do have policies against providing references, thinking they may be held liable, but “a reference is considered a communication protected by qualified privilege and the person giving the reference cannot be sued for slander or defamation, provided the comments are the referee’s honestly held opinion”.  (Howard Levitt and Michael Mulroy;  Lang, Michener;  Toronto Office).      

A comprehensive Background Check can include any or all of the following, where they constitute a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ):

  • Legal entitlement to work in Canada
  • Educational credentials 
  • Employment references
  • Employment verification 
  • Professional designations 
  • Registration as a professional in good standing with the appropriate licensing body or professional college
  • Consumer Credit Check
  • Driver’s Extract plus proof of valid insurance 
  • Police Record Search or Vulnerable Sector Search 

Reference checks can be completed in-house by the HR department or outsourced to a company which specializes in this.  Before initiating any checks, the hiring manager should ask the candidate to sign a Consent to Conduct a Background Check.  This usually includes a paragraph to the effect that “if any such information is, at any time, found to be false, this may be cause for termination of employment”.

Employers, determine which process will be most effective and efficient for you: 

  • Employment verification:  This confirms the factual information the candidate has already provided in his resume and/or the hiring manager may have seen on his Facebook or LinkedIn profile.  These facts  include but are not limited to:  title of role, key responsibilities,  dates of service, total compensation.  
  • Reference letters:  These tend to be positive and, while helpful, are rarely accepted at face value.  Often, the reference checker will contact the author for a more in-depth conversation.
  • Employment references:  Since past performance is the best predictor of future performance, reference checkers collect more qualitative data about how the candidate performed, his key strengths and his areas for development.  Topics for discussion may include:  problem solving, work habits, motivation, self understanding, people skills, coping strategies, work-life balance priorities, etc.  Human Rights legislation is clear about the questions that can and cannot be asked during interviews and references.   

Candidates, as you prepare a list of references: 

  • Offer a range of people:  Let the reference checker choose who to contact from:  a manager to whom you’ve reported, a colleague, a direct report, a client or supplier, a teacher or professor and a person (not a relative) who has known you for at least 2 years.
  • Don’t assume:  Ask your references for consent every time you need them to speak on your behalf.  
  • Choose people who will provide balanced info:  Consider those who are most appropriate for the specific opportunity for which you’ve applied.   Hiring managers need to know about your areas for development (not necessarily your “weaknesses”) as well as your strengths.
  • Make it easy to contact each person:  Prepare a list of your references including their names, titles, daytime phone numbers and e-mails.  Use the same format as your resume and cover letter so that the three documents form a “suite” when viewed together.
  • Provide appropriate documentation:  Ensure each referee has a copy of your resume and the recruiting brief for the specific role for which you’re being considered.
  • Leaving story:  Make sure your version of why you’re applying for a new opportunity matches your manager’s point of view.  
  • Don’t attach references to your application:   Unless specifically asked to do so (the public sector typically does this), most hiring managers request references at the end of the second interview.
  • When asking for testimonials on your social networking sites:  Focus on quality;  several crisp references have far more impact than a number of generic responses.  Check the referee’s reptutation;  you want to be sure of referee is visible and credible in your community of practice.

Referees, be prepared to tell the candidate:

  • How you plan to answer questions:  You should have a list of what you perceive to be his key strengths and areas for development
  • What you actually said:   You should be able to report back  each of the questions asked by the reference checker and your response.

When it comes down to two  similarly qualified candidates for a role, strategic references can make all the difference.  Employers should ensure they conduct references for every hire and candidates should ensure their their references work smart for them.