HR trends

The Screening Process: Reference Check

Tea Cvijanović

Getting to know candidates benefits your hiring process

 While hiring your future talents, you want to make sure to hire the right person for your company. One of the logical steps that imposes itself as a starting point is to do the screening of your candidates. Screening is a quite complex process, and it branches in different directions. The one which is mostly mentioned in public is the “background check”. Since this one is a unique area we won't discuss so much, it will soon be clear why reference check is actually a different process you should introduce to your practice (if you haven’t already). You can find a few exciting chapters about why, when, and how to perform a reference check and why it is so important. It is probably wise to start with separating reference from the background check.

The Difference Between the Reference Check and Background Check

Let us be clear in the mere beginning.

Mentioned terms are popular in public so much that the general opinion places them both into one and the same box. However, it's not that simple.

So, what differentiates reference checks from background checks? The answer lies in the focus.

A reference check is used to get insight into the abilities and knowledge of the talent. In contrast, a background check verifies the talent's experience and credentials.

The difference also lies in the fact that a reference check applies only to the professional and personal information the talent provided to the company. All personal information, according to the law in most countries, should be in connection with the employment.

On the other hand, a background check focuses on the talent's employment background, criminal record, or credit history. While a background check is used to look up commercial, financial and criminal records of the talent, a reference check is used to find the perfect talent fit and tends to protect the company from a bad hire.

The What, Why, and When

What Does It Mean?

Reference checking is a part of the screening process.

As a part of the hiring process, a reference check involves contacting previous employers, supervisors, companies, etc., verifying education and employment information, or is simply used to learn more about the talent's experiences, skills, and knowledge. 

It consists of a set of steps. First, the company can verify dates of employment and job titles, and college degrees attained. Then, a little deeper approach involves talking to those who provided the references of talent's skills, qualifications, and abilities needed for the job opening.

It is vital to companies because they want to confirm the talents' employment history and qualifications they stated on their CV match. Also, it shows if the skill in question matches the job offering requirements.

Why Is It Done?

A good thing about reference checking is that it verifies the truthfulness of the provided information and the talent's ability regarding the right skill set for the job opening. Also, it helps identify patterns of behavior of the talent during the time they worked at the previous company. In a predictive way, they can reflect the talent's future success in the company if hired.

One of the best things about reference checking is that it minimizes the company's risk while hiring (time spent on recruiting) as it maximizes the clarity of expectations for the talent.

From the legal standpoint, reference checks are considered very important, but as a final validation or a simple warning sign about the talent's presentation in the honesty department.

There's an ongoing debate whether reference checks are less about acquiring positive and negative feedback from the previous company employers and more about learning about the talent's strengths and weaknesses. The latter informs companies on what to focus on so they can support the talents once they hire them.

When Is It Done?

The experts advise not to conduct reference checks in the final phases of the hiring process because it is counterproductive. In addition, they shouldn't be used as a "red flag" identifier but utilized immediately after the first or second interview round.

Why is the timing so important? It’s because it is advised to learn about a candidate's performance and skills before investing more time and effort into the interview process. Conducting the reference check in the early stages uncovers which talent is the right fit for your company or may illuminate an ace-in-the-hole skill or attribute gained from the former company's feedback.

What to Do and What Not to Do

Firstly, you as a company need to ensure that the reference check process you plan on running is beneficial for the company, that is, whether it's worth the time and effort invested in it.

Seek input from your team which conducts interviews.

Ask your interviewing team to describe the job and ask specific questions which reflect the responsibilities directly involved with the position. Talk to them about the necessity of specifying their questions by asking for particular examples from their reference, because clarity and straightforwardness in a subtle way will do the trick.

Set the tone, and don't rush things. Emphasize constructive conversation with your talent, and compliment them - you know that nobody is perfect. Even though it is handy to learn as much as possible about the talents before hiring them, so you can confirm they will fit into your company, it is essential to provide the proper integration in this hiring process.

While in the reference checking process, you will probably conduct more than just one interview with the talent.

Sticking to the facts is essential in the sense of not reading too much into the talent's tone of voice but focusing on what the references are saying. You should look for certain signs. One of them would be the situation if the talent did not inform the referrer that they are using them as a reference. Other interesting things to "check" are the talent's emotional intelligence, social-based ability, and soft skills. Here we have a cultural fit criterion which is to a large extent made easy on Roango with the help of its feature called “matching”. Basically, it matches the skills, expertise, and company culture preferences of the talent with those listed by a company. This not only allows HR to send the talent an invitation to apply straight away but also increases the chances of finding the right person.

Always conform to legal requirements and talent's right to privacy. Conducting the reference check is time-consuming, but you shouldn't disregard its importance. Also, seeking opinions from your colleagues from the HR team will enable you to be unbiased about a candidate and find the right talent who fits your company logically and objectively. During the interviewing phase, it is important not to contact the talent's current employer. Talent might get into trouble with their superiors at the company where they are currently employed, which violates the principle of confidentiality and data security in hiring.

Listen to what the talent is saying and don't interrupt them or guide them towards the answer you want to hear. Don't show any skepticism or a negative stance towards the talent or read anything into their performance in the interview. Also, review the resume before conducting the interview, and document the information they shared with you.

Since it is debatable, professionals argue about many components of the reference checking process. Reference checks sometimes confirm what you already know about the talent. Also, many companies rarely read the references or don't do reference checking.

There is a possibility that you won't even have the opportunity to uncover "red flags" because talents only submit references that say good things about them to present themselves in the best possible light.

A well-prepared talent will not give you bad references, and sometimes their answers won’t be completely honest, which is tricky to assess. Also, the "deceit" might not be intentional. For example, a reference might be given by someone from the company who wasn't directly involved with the talent's work, so they might have evaluated them differently than someone who might have been in a more frequent working connection with them.

Another challenge that might appear is incomplete information -  sometimes talent may hesitate to ask for a reference from their current employer because they didn't inform them they are looking for another job.

Companies should know how to conduct checks and make sure to comply with the law to avoid discrimination claims.

Let’s Sum It All Up

Overall, both companies and talents should be aware of the importance the screening has in the hiring process. As mentioned, sometimes you will only confirm what you already know but sometimes you may uncover something that might change your mind about whether the candidate should go to the next round of the hiring process. However, having in mind the importance of reference checking due to the abundance of useful information it may unveil, it is important to take heed of the pieces of advice provided to ensure the process goes smoothly. As a result, it is important to remember that the talent must always be treated confidentially and their data must be protected.


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