Reference Checking: An Art, Not a Science

Checking an employee’s references can make the difference between hiring an employee who will be successful in your organization and hiring one who will not be successful. Here are tips for checking references to help make a good hiring decision.

In an earlier article, I opined that pre-employment reference checks, while often tricky and sometimes time-consuming, are worth the effort, citing the Merit Systems Protection Board’s (MSPB) September 2005 Special Report, “Reference Checking in Federal Hiring: Making the Call.”

I agree with the MSPB Report’s contention that current/former supervisors are the “gold standard” for reference checkers and with its citation of the “behavioral consistency principle – that the most reliable predictor of future behavior, such as job performance, is past behavior.”

I will focus in this article on tips for the reference checker, while addressing in subsequent articles advice for the person at the other end of the reference-checking phone call and for the applicants themselves.

The MSPB Special Report says that properly conducted reference checks several elements. I will briefly address each of these.

Job-related. If you are filling a position that has responsibility for opening a national park unit’s visitor center every morning, questions about a candidate’s reliability/ dependability would clearly be job-related. I think it is always a good idea to ask Human Resources (HR) to review your questions in advance, and to check with your Counsel’s office if you have concerns regarding the legality of questions you are planning to ask.

Based on observation of work. As a reference checker, you are seeking direct observations of a potential employee’s work, not what someone has heard about that person’s work.

Focused on specifics. If you are filing a position that requires strong analytical skills, it is appropriate to ask how the potential employee has demonstrated such skills, and to request examples.

Feasible and efficient. It is in the best interest of the reference checker to make the process as easy and as brief as possible for the person providing the information. Think about your highest-priority questions, such as “Would you rehire this person?”

Assessments of the applicant. The MSPB Report states that “Reference checking is subject to employment regulations such as the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures and must conform to accepted professional measurement practice.”

I believe you can meet the intent of the Uniform Guidelines, which are designed to ensure that the “total selection process” does not have an adverse impact on the employment opportunities of members of a race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and can conform with accepted professional measurement practice, by asking only questions that are job-related and by requesting the same information on all finalists.

Legally defensible. The MSPB Special Report says that “It is necessary for reference checks to meet high professional standards, and reference checkers can meet these standards within the constraints of the law.” I interpret that to mean you can only ask questions that are related to the needs of the job being filled, and that you should NOT ask questions about an employee’s age, marital status, sexual orientation, political affiliation, off-duty activities, etc.

Part of the hiring process. The MSPB Special Report notes that “The purpose of the reference check is to inform a decision about hiring. The results need to complement other assessments used in that process.” I see the reference check as the logical last step before making an employment offer, and it is typically done only on the finalist(s). It will likely either confirm or raise doubts about the positive impression you have gained of the candidate. It is up to each selecting official to determine how much weight to accord to the reference check results.

There are problems and obstacles that may make reference checking difficult. Some current/former supervisors or colleagues may be reluctant to provide information out of concern for legal liability or the possibility of being confronted by the employee.

Accordingly, one key question that reference checkers are likely to be asked is “Can you promise me confidentiality?” It is my belief that you CANNOT, because your selection may trigger a grievance or EEO complaint. If so, I think the whole record of selection may be made available to the grievant/complainant, including any employment references that played a role in your decision not to select the applicant.

Absent assurances of confidentiality, some sources are likely to respond in a cautious manner, and their answers may be of little value to the selecting official. That’s where the “art” comes into play.

The MSPB Report notes that “Reference checking specialists suggest a sequencing strategy for questions based on the rapport that develops between reference checker and reference provider as the discussion proceeds. An interview should begin with fact-oriented questions… (and) can progress to more evaluative discussion of the employee’s past performance and competencies. Finally, the discussion should address the applicant’s developmental needs. Discussion of more sensitive information, such as potentially inappropriate workplace behavior, should occur late in the interview as well.” I think this is great advice for reference checkers.

There are at least a couple of other complications that you may run into: One is the possibility that the current supervisor would like to get rid of the employee and will therefore give you a glowing reference in hopes that you will take the employee off his/her hands. It is legitimate to ask the supervisor about the employee’s most recent performance evaluation, and/or to probe for specific examples of superior performance/ accomplishments. You may occasionally even run into the opposite situation: where the current supervisor thinks so highly of the employee that she/he will try to discourage you from hiring that person, or where the supervisor and the employee don’t see eye to eye and the supervisor hopes to block the employee’s efforts to get a new job.

Your best course of action in these situations is to ask good follow-up questions that encourage the supervisor to provide examples, positive or negative. I would also advise you not to rely on just one source of information if it is feasible to get more than that.

A final “tip” is to focus all of your attention on the answers that are being provided to you, listening very carefully for changes in tone of voice, hesitancy to answer, etc. In my experience, when a current or former supervisor or associate of your potential employee is genuinely enthusiastic about their experience with that employee, that enthusiasm tends to come through loud and clear, even over the phone.

I don’t think there is any such thing as “foolproof” reference checking, and I will admit to having gotten “burned” a few times when doing it, but I believe that, as in many other areas of work and life, reference checking skill improves with practice. If you are well- prepared and exercise both diligence and common sense, you should be able to acquire enough information to adequately augment what you have already learned about the candidate via her/his resume, job interview, etc. If that just isn’t possible, you may have to decide whether to go with what you do know about the candidate or to see if you can gather better background information on another finalist.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.