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Checking References The Right Way

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Reference Checking Process has benefits for candidates, employees, recruiters and hiring managers.

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Every recruiter would like the assurance that the candidate they are hiring is competent enough to do the job well and has the right set of qualifications and experience. However, research conducted by Xref found that 42% of respondents admitted to having deliberately lied to a potential employer. 

Acting on misleading information provided on a CV or during an interview can be costly, as it may result in hiring a candidate who requires more training or simply may be entirely unsuited for the role. 

In this blog, we look at the power of good reference checking and its potential to improve your hiring decisions. Read on to learn about reference checking, how it impacts its users and questions that can help you build a robust questionnaire.

What is reference checking?

Reference checking is the crucial step in the recruitment process that leverages an opinion about a candidate’s capabilities from someone other than the candidate. With the rise in remote hiring, it has become increasingly necessary to ensure that the applicant is suitable for the role and company. 

Due diligence through reference checking can help reduce the risk of hiring the wrong candidate. It also helps a future employer learn more about a candidate's strengths, how they will fit the team and the areas that require improvement once they are on the job.

Reference checking should be simple and convenient for all

Reference checking is a hiring staple for recruiters. Here’s a look at who’s involved in the process and what it takes for each of the stakeholders to have a smooth experience: 

There are 4 stakeholders involved in a reference check

1. What makes reference checking a great experience for a candidate?

Smooth reference checking can add to a great candidate experience, here are some points that can significantly impact the applicant’s experience:

  • User friendly: A quick and easy process that is simple to understand and follow.
  • Unbiased: A consistent approach that gives every candidate a fair opportunity for the role.
  • Transparency: A transparent process that keeps the candidate updated on the progress of their reference checks.
  • Compliant: A fully compliant method that keeps candidate information safe.

2. What makes reference checking a great experience for a referee?

As you’d want to get the best out of your reference checks in the quickest way possible, here’s what make reference checking a great experience for referees:

  • Time-efficient: Busy referees don’t always have time for a call; online reference checking allows them to respond at a time that is convenient for them.
  • Mobile-friendly: A tool that gives the referee the flexibility to complete a reference check on a device that best suits them. 
  • Optional: In some cases, due to personal reasons or an organisation’s ‘no reference policy’, the referee may not be able to give a reference check and should have the option to politely decline. 
  • Non-discriminatory: An experience that avoids discriminatory questions such as, "We work in a busy and fast-paced environment, will she be able to handle the workload here? Is she willing to work on the weekend to stay on top of things, or does she have kids that would prevent her from being able to?" 
  • Flexible: A questionnaire designed to allow the referee the flexibility to share their view about the candidate in detail rather than providing just ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers.

3. What makes reference checking a great experience for a recruiter?

Finding out whether a candidate is the right person for the role takes time, patience and diligence. Here’s what you should keep in mind for a great experience:

  • Ease and simplicity: A reference checking tool that is simple to use, easy to set up and saves recruiting time.
  • ATS Integrations: A solution that integrates with ATS platforms, allowing recruiters to work from a single platform and keep records centralised.
  • Return on investment: In a tight budget environment, the tool should quickly demonstrate ROI. 
  • Global compliance: Compliance and data protection can be a thorny issue; the tool should ensure globally compliant data collection and storage. 
  • Relevance: The process should include specific questions that relate to a candidate’s ability to perform the job, while avoiding those that may be based on race, religion, or sexual orientation.
  • Suspicious activity detection: Any potentially suspicious activity taking place during the reference check should be detected and the recruiter should be notified.
  • Consistency: Reference checking is most useful when it is well structured and consistent. A standard process allows unbiased opinions that bring fairness to the hiring activity.
  • Great results: Due diligence from robust reference checks can validate that the candidate is who they say they are, has been where they say they have been and can do what they’ve said they can do.
Qualities of a good reference check

4. What makes reference checking a great experience for a hiring manager?

Reference checks can help verify the claims made by applicants. To get the vetting process right you should ensure that it gives you the following:

  • Relevant and valuable insights: Data and insights on candidates can help make better hiring decisions. Insights gathered from online reference checking provide valuable information about the candidate and their ability to perform in the role.
  • Efficiency: An online solution that is quick and reliable will ensure that positions can be filled quickly.

The difference between good & bad reference checks

Stakeholders involved in the reference checking process will agree that a good reference check comprises the following qualities: 

  • Easy: Ease of set up and use for everyone involved.
  • Secure: Keeps candidate and referee information safe.
  • Compliant: Meets all local and global regulatory requirements. 
  • Quick: Minimises delays in recruitment caused by manual processes. 
  • Insightful: Gathers data in a form that can be easily analysed.

It boils down to ‘who’ you reach out to and ‘what’ you ask for a favourable outcome.

'Who' you reach out to and 'what' you ask is important

Here are some actionable points you need to consider:

Who are you reaching out to?

There are two kinds of references, professional and personal.

  1. Professional references are managers from past employment who can confirm the candidate’s qualifications, experience and overall suitability for a job.
  2. Personal references are people from the candidate’s network, such as friends or teachers who can provide information on the applicant’s character or be helpful when they do not have work experience. These could also include professors and mentors. 

The ideal referee is someone the candidate has worked with closely, who can vouch for their ability to perform on the job.

A referee can vouch for a candidate

What are the right questions to ask? 

The more information you have about a candidate, the better placed you are to assess their suitability for the role. Certain questions are more effective than others. The questions we’ve identified as being necessary to every reference template fall under three simple categories:

1. Essential

We recommend that a reference template includes at least five essential questions that account for a candidate's previous employment and performance. These are the kind of questions that will cover the basic needs of a reference and ensure that employment verification actions are taken care of.

Examples of essential questions include:

  • “Please detail the nature of your working relationship (i.e. direct boss or supervisor, etc).” 
  •  “What roles do you think they would be suitable for in the future?”

Ensuring the basics are taken care of means that you can build upon them with tailored questions that are more suited to each candidate and the type of role you’re hiring for.

2. Personal Attributes

Personal attributes are the questions that build a picture of a candidate’s professional personality. The personal attribute questions are an excellent opportunity to determine what motivates individuals and how they might fit your company’s workplace culture.

Examples of personal attribute questions could include: 

  • “Can you please rate and describe their ability to use initiative when problem-solving?” 
  • “Please rate and comment on their ability to learn”.

Including these kinds of questions ensures that you’re gaining insight that their new employer will use to manage them or help them adjust to their new role. 

3. Role-Specific

Role-specific questions are used to provide insights into a candidate’s professional capabilities in light of the type of role they’re applying for. Examples of  role-specific questions could include: 

  • “Please rate and comment on their computer skills and ability to adopt new software.”  
  • “Can you comment on the level of supervision they required? How well did they work autonomously?”

Including a tailored balance of both role-specific and personal attributes questions will ensure that you have a well-rounded reference to help you make an informed hiring decision.

Traditional hiring vs remote hiring questions 

In most remote hiring cases, you don't get to meet the candidate in person and you’ve got to be able to trust the person you hire. It may be helpful to ask questions that will give you a better sense of how trustworthy the candidate is.

Examples of specific remote hiring questions could include: 

  • “Describe how the candidate has worked with minimum supervision.” 
  • “Rate and comment on the candidate's ability to self-manage.”

Including this mix of questions enables you to tailor each questionnaire and make it relevant for the role or industry that you’re hiring for. 

What makes a well balanced questionnaire

The right reference checking software

Recruitment technology has a significant role in collecting valuable data and can help eliminate the risk of human error throughout the hiring process.  It is vital to invest in tech that can be relied on to scale with a business as the workforce evolves. It is helpful to know how this technology could benefit your business long-term instead of just serving as a simple, quick fix in the short-term. Ensure it is user-friendly so your team can get comfortable with the software quickly. 

The surprising benefits of great reference checking

You’ll be amazed by what thorough reference checking can do for your recruitment process - both short term and in the long run. After being in the business for ten years, we have seen that a great reference check helps in the following ways: 

Short Term:

  • Reveals valuable information about a candidate: When done correctly, reference checks are a goldmine of information that uncover a complete history of how candidates performed in similar roles. 
  • Minimises the risks of hiring the wrong candidate: If you hire the wrong candidate, you risk having to rehire for the role soon thereafter. Checking a candidate’s background can help you make confident hiring decisions.
  • Ensures compliant and secure data handling: A reliable reference checking tool is globally compliant with data collection and storage. You won’t have to worry about your sensitive candidate and referee information being leaked or misused.
  • Integrates with ATS platforms: Creating a seamless workflow by integrating the reference checking process into other HR platforms. 
  • Detects unusual activity: A reliable reference checking tool raises a red flag for any suspicious activity or potential fraud
  • Brings in an element of empathy: For the employer, offering empathy to both the candidate and referee means they will end up with reference checks that are returned much more quickly and with a lot more detail and consideration.

Long Term:

  • Creates a fair and standardised recruitment process: Meeting all regulatory requirements ensures that every candidate is assessed fairly. When the reference checking process follows best practices, it creates a system for fair hiring. 
  • Improves talent attraction: When you hire the right candidates for the roles, you’ll have happy employees that thrive in your organisation. This in turn, will create a better employer brand and attract more great candidates for your jobs.
  • Creates talent pooling opportunities: Reference checking can help you create a pool of ready-to-hire candidates and referees interested in opportunities in your organisation. 
  • Enables compliant business development: reference checking traditionally presents an opportunity for recruitment teams to pitch their business to referees. Using an online reference checking tool ensures that this is done compliantly.
  • Creates efficient workplaces: Reference checking helps you validate candidates and build efficient teams and workplaces. 
  • Streamlines recruitment processes: A reliable and easy to use reference checking tool can speed up admin tasks freeing up your time for people-oriented activities.
  • Offers transparency: Online reference checking offers candidates a much more transparent experience so they no longer feel  ‘ghosted’ by recruiters.
Short and long term benefits of a great reference check

Reference checking is crucial when hiring for positions of trust

Some sectors require more attention than others, including health and aged care providers, which are complex in their requirements as they cater to vulnerable communities.  It’s crucial that the right people are hired for these positions of trust. Having robust recruitment processes in place to ensure candidates are who they say they are and have the experience they claim to have is critical to establishing an audit-proof hiring record that guarantees the right level of care and protection for the clients and patients of these organisations. 

At YMCA, for example, it's absolutely critical that the team ensures the safety of the children in their care. Reference checks are part of a long list of compliance measures the organisation must take during the hiring process and implementing Xref has ensured that it can be done with ease and assurance. 

"Safeguarding children is a priority so we need to ensure that we have sought to understand the background of a person that we are hiring and their experience can only be underwritten by a robust reference check." - Lorin Clough, YMCA

Data Security and Compliance

A large amount of candidate data is collected and stored by HR teams, making data security and protection vital through the reference checking process. Hiring companies and their HR teams need to make reasonable security arrangements and protect the collected reference information. To keep up with companies’ security demands, online reference checking providers need to ensure that they maintain the highest global standards. A globally compliant reference checking provider ensures that candidates’ and referees’ data is safe from unauthorised access. 

How to improve your reference checking process

Ways to improving your reference checking process

1. Make sure you respect the candidate’s privacy at all times

Candidate information is personal and sensitive; it is the employer’s duty to ensure the candidate’s data is stored securely and is shared only with those involved in the selection process. 

2. Ask for 2-3 reference checks for every candidate

Best practices suggest getting two or three work-related references. A single reference may not be sufficient for a hiring decision. 

3. Ensure that the candidate notifies their reference of the process involved and what is expected of them

Always gain consent from a candidate before reaching out to a referee. Make sure the candidate is clear of your reference checking process so they can give a clear heads up to the referee. 

4. Talk to hiring managers to understand the role 

A better understanding of the job role and its challenges will help you ask the right questions. You’d be more confident hiring a candidate who has faced and overcome work challenges associated with the role. 

5. Automate your reference checking task

Automated reference checking can take the legwork out of your recruiting task; it frees you from boring and cumbersome admin related work so you can focus more on people. Recruiters who have switched over from manual reference checking to online software confirm its simplicity and efficiency, among many other advantages.

6. Update your questionnaire from time to time 

As job roles evolve, it would be helpful to evaluate the questionnaire associated with the position. For instance, if certain functions in the job are automated, the employee managing the role would be expected to be tech-savvy to use tools well or draw insights from the data the software produces. You may want to explore a candidate’s readiness to pick up a new skill or tool in such cases. Having the right tools to build your questionnaire will ensure that you get the best results possible while being efficient and effective. This is why we’ve created Xref Template Builder; a simple yet powerful tool designed to make it super easy for you to build a compliant and tailored questionnaire.

7. Ask questions to review your existing process

To evaluate if your current reference checking process is still getting you the best candidates for your company, you should review it frequently. You could review your process by asking the following questions: 

  • Is the current reference checking process compliant?
  • Does the current process provide sufficient insights into a candidate's past performance? Can the candidate be benchmarked against others? 
  • Is the current process consistent and unbiased? 

If you feel that your current process needs an upgrade, you could try using Xref.

Make the most of your ROI (Return on Insights)

Make the most of your return on insights (ROI)

When gathered from reference checking, insights can optimise your hiring process and add value to your company. Reference checking platforms like Xref offer data-driven insights that can make decision making much simpler for you. Decisions backed by data can move your candidate selection from gut feel to a dependable choice; the same insights can stop you from recruiting the wrong candidate.  Data gathered from reference checks will help you:

  • Benchmark candidates: A candidate may not tick all the boxes but may have core competencies crucial to the role. When mapped against the core competencies desired for the position, the reference checking questionnaire’s answers can provide clear and indicative data about a candidate, making it easy for recruiters to benchmark candidates at a glance.
  • Compare candidates: When hiring for a new role, you will usually narrow it down to one or two candidates. Data can help evaluate and compare candidates for you to make the right decision. It can flag areas that may require clarification before you hire. For instance, a referee may highlight a candidate's ability to be a team player over being a manager. As a hiring manager, you will become familiar with trends over time which will help you hire better and faster. 

Recruiters worldwide use insights to optimise hiring and benchmark candidate’s for confident hiring decisions. All of this can have a massive impact on a company's ability to achieve its business objective, and that’s what makes it so valuable. 


Employment checks provide valuable information about pre-hires and are essential for decision making. Organisations with the proper reference checking tools and processes benefit from the simplicity, efficiency and ease of using an automated solution. Online reference checking does the heavy lifting of admin tasks for recruiters to ensure it is done quickly and with compliance. Reference checking is not limited to industries or roles. Regardless of who you’re hiring, from blue-collar staff to executive roles, robust reference checking remains essential for confident recruitment decisions. 

Traditional reference checking methods rely a lot on guesswork and the process may seem complex. Let Xref take care of the heavy lifting work, so you don’t need to worry. Get in touch to find out how we can help you hire the right candidates.

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