Don’t Skip the Reference Check!

Don’t Skip the Reference Check!

by Sara Bennett | November 4, 2019

0 Author-Jeanne, HIRING. EMPLOYEE SELECTION get connected


The Case for Reference Checks!

It never ceases to amaze me how seldom I am called upon to provide a reference for one of our former employees.  In most cases, I know that my reference “really doesn’t matter” – i.e. that what a hiring manager “sees”  in their interview with our former employee will absolutely be what they “get” when that employee starts work.    These are PACE employees who are stellar and would do a  “good job” wherever they work.

For other employees, I have to wonder what convinced a hiring manager to hire them without first checking with their former employer.   These are employees,  who,  for any number of reasons had “issues” that didn’t work well  in our environment, and “may not” work well in theirs.  We get to know our employees pretty well – so all a potential employer would have to do is ask and we could provide helpful info on what type of job or work environment would suit them best.  We would never tell someone they are about to make a hiring mistake, but we certainly can offer a perspective on the performance of an employee that they couldn’t get from an interview.

For me personally if I had to choose only one venue I could use to vet a candidate before hiring them, that venue would be the reference check.   If  the best predictor of a candidate’s future performance is their performance in the past, there is no one who knows about past performance like someone who has seen that performance first hand.     

The Reference Check Compared to Other Vetting Processes

And while any recruiter can tell you there are times when we just know that the reference provider is speaking from a “subjective” place (“I just want Mary to get a great job.  I hated to have to lay her off”) just comparing the reference providers subjective information with the candidate’s subjective information can provide important insights.   From my perspective, the reference check trumps the interview, the resume, even professionally constructed skill or aptitude assessments as the tool that can most reliably predict on the job performance.

As just one example, the resume is prepared by the candidate and will only reveal so much about what they did and how.  And if the resume pundits are to be believed,  75-85% of all resumes contain some significant misrepresentation of what the candidate has done.

Interviews are both necessary and helpful,  but most are not conducted in ways that avoid the subjective nature of a candidate’s responses or the biases inherent in how interviewers interpret those responses.

Skill and aptitude tests are definitely more objective, and can provide detailed information about a candidate as compared to others in the “testing universe”, but from our experience have limited value as stand alone tools and are only helpful when combined with other evaluative data.

Only the reference check provides information in the vetting process not provided by the candidate. 

Information You Can Get from a Reference Check That You Won’t Always Get from the Candidate

  • What the employee actually did or contributed to an important team or individual  result, different from what might listed on a candidate prepared  resume.    Were they a key player in those results?  A strong contributor? Or just someone who happened to enjoy a result they didn’t really personally produce?  How did they uniquely contribute to an important result?


  • How did the employee get along with all of their teammates – not  just the few who became part of  “their group”?   How did they behave in situations or where their views conflicted with others – a coworker?  a boss?  Does their past behavior in these types of situations “match” the behavior you want in your culture?


  • How does the employee react to feedback?  How are they best trained to learn something new?  How do they deal with change?  These are things that often make a difference in an employee who will be able to contribute long term in your work environment – an employee you can continue to develop.


  • How does the supervisor view the candidate’s performance  in comparison with other candidates they have seen doing the same job?

One of the most valuable pieces of information you get from checking a reference is the opportunity to learn if the candidate’s  self-reports match up with another point of view.

As part of our vetting process, when one of our recruiters checks a candidate’s references, we always ask a past employer to confirm (or contradict) information the candidate provided us in their interview.

Roger said he thought his  employment was in “good standing” with you, when he elected to quit to take a job that he thought would be a step for him in terms of responsibility and pay.  Is that information you can confirm?   

While it can be disappointing to learn that the candidate’s story about their work doesn’t line up with what you learn in a reference check, it’s better to have those “red flags” before you hire rather than 6-12 months later – when a problematic behavior surfaces that would have been detected if you had only checked a reference. 

Disconnects between a candidate’s story and the story told by your reference provider need to signal a deeper dive.

  • There are candidates who think nothing of purposefully misrepresenting their employment history, hoping a prospective employer won’t check.
  • Others are out of touch with the “realities” of their own performance and will bring their habits of blaming and excuse making to your work place.
  • Still others are simply telling their story from a different perspective – and the differences are harmless.

Knowing the difference is what matters.

In Today’s Marketplace Its Easy to Change Jobs and Hide Your Tracks

As we watch how employers find and vet candidates in the digital marketplace, and end up making hiring decisions they later regret, we have to believe that one of the underlying reasons is how easy it is for employees in today’s hot job market to change jobs.  If an employee has a bad day, all they have to do is post their resume, and wait for an unaware employer to take the bait.  Employees can dodge issues with their performance by simply moving on.

Unfortunately they take their lack of commitment and/or their performance issues with them – which tend to  show up wherever they work, creating a  “hiring mistake” for an employer who didn’t take the time to check.

What do you do when the candidate is currently working and check the reference isn’t possible?

Some candidates will suggest you talk with a co worker or peer in another department.  Rather than spending time talking to someone who has a completely different vantage point than a supervisor, there is another technique you might consider.  How about making an offer of employment contingent on your ability to confirm that the “interview data” you’ve obtained from the candidate match up with what you will uncover in a reference check conducted following the employee’s notice.     This is a risky tactic  for candidates who know their story and their supervisor’s story won’t match up,  but for the employer,  it might be a hiring mistake worth avoiding.

What’s the Story Re: On Line Reference Surveys?

A recent advance is the use of on line reference check technologies to quickly survey former employers about an employee’s performance.   While there are some problems inherent in the process, we have found a way to use online surveys with exceptional results.  We get responses from our digital surveys within hours of queries;  we can uncover false reference information early in the process before our client’s waste time evaluating a candidate whose references will not verify their self-reports.   We also get the benefit of candidates who tend to be more forthcoming in their interviews knowing that what they self-report will be checked with a previous employer.

For our team,  the on line surveys do not replace the need to go more in depth in our reference check process at point just before the client is about to extend an offer.  Talking live with a previous employer is a step in the process we will never replace.

While there’s no one strategy that will eliminate all hiring mistakes, there are pieces of the hiring process that can be improved to reduce the more obvious miscues.  The reference check is one of those. 

Rather than thinking of the reference check as an annoyance to be tacked on at the end of your process, consider using it early in the process to keep the information exchanges between you and your candidate honest.


PACE Staffing Network is one of the Puget Sound’s premier staffing /recruiting agencies and has been helping Northwest  employers find and hire employees based on the “right fit” for over 40 years.

A  3 time winner of the coveted “Best in Staffing” designation , PACE is ranked in the top 2% of staffing agencies nationwide based on annual surveys of customer satisfaction.

PACE services include temporary and contract staffing, temp to hire auditions, direct hire professional recruiting services, Employer of Record (payroll) services, and a large menu of candidate assessment services (including reference checks) our clients can purchase a la carte.

To learn more about how partnering with PACE will make a difference to how you find and hire employees,  contact us at 425-637-3312 or e mail our Partner Solutions  team  at

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