People First HR Services

Ensure reference helps you to No. 1 spot

Colleen Coates

High-quality recommendation important in job selection

Have you ever thought you were a sure winner for that new job and then found out you were second choice? Do you know why? It could very well be because of your references.

High quality reference checks are an important part of the selection process when organizations are seeking to hire a candidate according to Jenna Buckley, HR recruiter at People First HR Services. “Reference checks rule out candidates with phoney qualifications and when done right, act as a security measure against hiring mediocre candidates,” explains Buckley.

BackCheck, a leading provider of pre-employment due diligence, reports that the average “bad hire” that leaves an organization within six months costs the organization approximately $40,000 in severance pay, training, wasted human resources time, search firm fees, productivity and impact on employee morale. The importance of reference checks should not be underestimated.

Buckley provides the following tips to help both job seekers and employers tackle this important step in the new hire selection process:

Who should be provided as a reference?

Candidates should stick with previous employers, ideally the most recent or most relevant. Select the person who can best speak to your skills and abilities such as your direct supervisor. Employers should be wary of employment references from the applicant’s co-workers, even if they are a manager, as they may not be fully aware of on-the-job issues. If you are early in your career, then reach out to teachers, instructors, coaches or perhaps those with whom you completed volunteer work for character references.

Be sure to request permission from the person you have listed as a reference. Contacting your references in advance gives you the opportunity to remind them of the projects you accomplished or even make a request to mention something specific you achieved that would be relevant to the new job you are seeking. Remember to thank your references and share the good news when you land the job.

What can be done to mitigate less-than-flattering references?

Honesty during the interview process provides you with the opportunity to come clean with any past negative experiences. Remember that even though you may not list a previous employer as a reference, recruiters and prospective employers are free to contact any employer you have listed in your work experience.

What guidelines are most important for employers to follow?

— Request a minimum of three professional references with current contact information (business telephone number and email address) including how they know the applicant. Complete information will help avoid delays for not only the employer who is anxious to hire, but also for the candidate who is eager to receive a job offer.

— Prepare a list of questions ahead of time and ensure they are non-discriminatory. Resumé facts should be verified such as dates of employment, level and scope of responsibilities and reason for leaving. Questions should relate specifically to accomplishments the candidate has noted on his or her resumé. One of my favourites is “Would you rehire (name) if the opportunity arose?”

— Focus on essential information and remain composed as information that is negative may be disclosed. Probing techniques should be used to garner further information on a response that is vague or seems to imply there is something further the reference provider wants to say. Avoid assumptions so as not to send away a great candidate just because the person providing the reference is unprofessional or inexperienced and has not considered the ramifications of their lacklustre response.

— Accurately record all information obtained from the reference checks. Document when the reference was obtained and specific details of what was said. This information may be needed to convey to the hiring manager and will be used to differentiate candidates.

— Stay away from Facebook or similar social media sites as a means of weeding out applicants. Certainly don’t hesitate to have a look at their LinkedIn Profile, which the social-media-savvy candidates will already be using as part of their job search toolkit.

How should I respond to a request for a reference check?

— First of all, be sure of your organization’s policy about providing reference checks. Many organizations typically ask that only the HR department responds to these requests.

— If asked to provide a character reference, avoid agreeing to do it if you do not plan to provide a satisfactory recommendation. Instead, politely decline indicating it is a matter of policy or personal preference. Agreeing to provide a reference and then sharing unfavourable or incomplete information is unkind and potentially very damaging to the job seeker.

— It is a good practice to, at the very least, confirm employment dates, job title and reason for leaving for former employees, even if you are not comfortable providing a thorough reference.

— If you want to provide a reference, be professional and only provide information that relates to work performance. Refrain from expressing personal judgments or relaying gossip. Provide a clear, accurate picture of performance and don’t make up answers if you don’t know.

Thorough background checks can stop problems at the door, saving your organization time and money, not to mention a headache or two. Selecting your next hire is a big decision and worthy of due diligence.


Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 H2