References – to check or not to check?

Reference checks are often used as a tool supporting the recruitment and candidate verification process, especially when it comes to recruiting managers and top executives.

Form: verbal or written?
My experience from recruitment firms shows that the vast majority of employers expect verbal references. What about recommendation / reference letters?

They can sometimes be useful, e.g. in the UK, where they are still considered to be an important tool. However, most companies in Europe value verbal references, verified directly with “real” people, who can say something more about the candidate. They do not pay attention to reference letters, because they assume that “paper accepts anything”, meaning anybody can write anything about anybody and just because it’s on paper doesn’t mean it’s true.

Who checks?
Reference checks can be conducted by both headhunters and future employers. Unfortunately, in both cases, it often happens that the person entrusted with this task, is inexperienced, which may cause a lot of mistakes and damages throughout the process. Perhaps the most serious but unfortunately still made mistake is checking the references at the candidate’s current workplace. I personally know of several cases, which led to rather dramatic turns in the career of those whose references had been “verified” this way. This may be caused by the over-zeal or lack of business experience of the recruiter, as well as their inability to predict what a dramatic chain of events they can begin by even arranging such a contact attempt. An experienced recruiter would never commit such an error.

Added value
Another common mistake is checking references in a very cursory and pointless way, which doesn’t bring anything valuable to the recruitment process. Unfortunately, questions such as “Can you list three disadvantages and three advantages of Mr Smith?” are still being asked.
Reference checks should include properly prepared questions, which are adequate to the situation. They should be designed so as to let the recruiter obtain responses which can be further used, even as a “bargaining chip” at the final stage of the process. Of course, questions should be differentiated according to the phase of the recruitment process, as we assume that at the initial stage more general information is needed, while in the end of the process, when the decision is to be made, it should be essential to specify something else.

Who is a valuable referee?
It can be a former boss or sometimes somebody from the human resources department. In the case of positions where the contact with the customer is crucial, references from the clients might be useful too.

What questions do employers and recruiters usually ask when checking references?
– Length of employment & previous job title
– Details of responsibilities / duties
– Major strengths & weaknesses – in the context of the pending recruitment / position
– Overall performance & quality of work, including major accomplishments
– Time-keeping and attendance
– Reason for leaving
– Interpersonal skills with co-workers and/or clients
– Employers can also ask your previous company if they would re-hire you, should you apply for a position there in the future.
– What do you need to do well?

Be prepared!
It is best to prepare your list of reference contacts in advance, but remember:
1) prior to giving e.g. your former boss as a reference, ask whether you are allowed to do so,
2) provide the person with an overview
of what kind of position(s) you have applied to as well as the information who and from which company will most probably call them,
3) if you’re on friendly terms with your reference and feel comfortable doing so, you can ask them not to disclose certain information. For example, the question “What was her initial and final salary?” is often asked. If you don’t want that information to be disclosed, ask your reference to answer this question with “I’m sorry, we don’t disclose this kind of information”.

We’ve seen situations where our clients were 100% convinced that somebody would give them a good or bad reference, but the opposite was true.

And I can’t highlight that enough: make sure you check the quality of your references before offering somebody as a referee. For that you can use services like ours of course or google similar service providers – the number of companies that do this might vary from country to country. In case you’d like to discuss, feel free to email me directly at Aneta.Lesiak (at)