Getting The Best From Reference Checking When Recruiting


So you reference checked your new employee and they're struggling on the job, so what went wrong? How can you ensure your reference check is a true prediction of performance when recruiting?

Reference checks not only tell you whether to consider someone for employment but can also highlight how to manage a person, or indicate what sort of training they may require.

Reference checking is viewed differently around the world dependent on local employment laws and risk to the referee of disclosure. The risk adverse attitude of the US, is now prevalent in the UK and Australia, where company employees can be banned from providing references to past employees. In the Phillipines it is very rare to reference check.

New Zealand is one of the last bastions of reliable reference checking due to laws which protect the referee. The NZ Privacy Act (s.29 (1)(b) & (3)(a)) means reference checks can not be disclosed to the candidate unless the Referee has approved this; though it's unlikely this is why reference checking remains common as most referees aren't aware of this. It's more likely the culture of ‘self-responsibility' - I doubt that it would even occur to the average New Zealander to sue the company who provided a good reference for someone who didn't perform.

Regardless of where you or your candidate is from, if you are reference checking this article will provide tips on how to get the best from the process. So how can you ensure you're getting the best out of a reference check?


  • Use references to choose between two close candidates. It's amazing what extra perspective you can gain.
  • Give the responsibility of references to the person who will manage the employee. They will have to deal with any aftermath so ensure they have their say (or at least to an independent background checker with no motive for the outcome to be good).
  • Follow a template structure but probe further dependent on the referees' responses, for instance if a referee states someone was average - you need to know why, and benchmark what they consider average.
  • Be aware of the occasional company who are trying to off load a non-performing employee. Luckily most people remember the law of karma, and realise what goes around comes around.
  • Align your questions with the interview questions you asked the candidate so you hear the other side of the story about what a candidate did. Competency based reference questions are valuable, such as ‘Tell me about the time the candidate did... (whatever the candidate told you in interview). Compare the two versions.
  • Let reluctant overseas referees know of a referee's protection under the NZ Privacy Act (if you are in NZ).


  • Be nervous about ringing cell phone numbers for referees, it's the reality of a mobile world. If the structure and content of the reference is right, any invalid referees will be easily revealed. You can reverse reference the referee by calling the company to ensure this is the referee's cell phone number.
  • Reference check unless you are serious about the candidate. If the candidate is active in the marketplace the referee may be tired of providing information, so everyone misses out.
  • Get your agency to reference check for you - remember they want the candidate to do well so quality and depth of agency references can vary enormously.
  • Be so enthralled with a star candidate that you only ask questions that will confirm your thoughts.
  • Ring your contacts at a candidates previous companies and enquire ‘if they might have known' the candidate. Several of the worlds Privacy Acts protect the candidate from such action.

I have had cases when someone has given a bad reference, as they didn't want to lose an employee, and also an overly enthusiastic reference when someone has tried to offload someone. If the referee sounds vague, is unable to go into detail on a candidate's achievements or are making broad sweeping statements, check they are who the candidate says they are or whether they still remember the candidate sufficiently well. Consider a third reference to get a more holistic picture.

References not only lessen mishires but also highlight star candidates who may have been a little bland at interview. By adding another piece of the puzzle to the candidate story (and a solid recruitment process) you will be better positioned to make a well-informed decision.

Tania Howard


Tania Howard is the director of Talent Seed a recruitment advisory company that trains and advises organisations towards best practice recruitment.

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