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What Makes a Great Reference Check?

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Why is it so important to have a great reference check?

Since 2011, we’ve been helping businesses conduct great reference checks and, in the last year alone, more than seven million questions have been answered using the Xref platform.

But not all questions are created equal and, as a business that’s passionate about the value of a good reference, we decided to take action to help the industry avoid making a bad call.

By compiling and reviewing all the questions that have passed across the Xref platform, we have been able to create Template Builder, a free, online tool that enables anyone conducting a reference check to build a best-practice template.


Because great things happen when you ask the right questions:

  1. You make confident and informed hiring decisions
  2. You learn more about your candidates
  3. You are in a better position to manage and retain great hires

Choosing the right questions at the referencing stage can help you uncover hidden potential and make great hires. But first, your questions need to be:

  •  Role-specific
  •  Compliant
  •  Unbiased
  •  Insightful

With those four pillars set up to structure your reference check, you can build a questionnaire that will not only get you valuable information on the candidate, but you will also be able to provide a great experience while doing so.

Having a great reference checking process in place will help you to make confident and informed hiring decisions as you will have more accurate and effective insight about the candidates who are applying. Having that insight will also put you in a much better position to manage and retain great hires.

Hiring the right people has never been more important and with that ensuring that your process is unbiased and compliant is especially important. Ensuring that your reference check is safe for individuals of all groups and backgrounds is a great step towards improving diversity and inclusion in your workplace.

It's simple to create a great reference check.

What’s important to know about reference checking?

In order to avoid reference checks becoming a box-ticking exercise (for both you and the references you’re speaking to), ensure you meet the following four criteria with your questions.

1. Ask purposeful questions

We’re asking more questions than ever. Quora, an online platform designed specifically for asking and answering questions, now receives 300 million unique users every month. But in an environment where questions are so common, we have to care about why we’re asking them to ensure we get the best outcomes from them.

During reference checking, this not only means getting the anatomy of each question right but also making sure you stop short of asking too many. Our platform analysis has shown that including 15 questions per reference template delivers the highest volume of high-quality responses.

Within that analysis, we have also found that there are three important aspects to cover when creating a great reference questionnaire. Firstly, essential questions, which help gather information such as the candidates prior roles, experience and performance within that role. Secondly, personal attribute questions, including questions about the candidates professional personality traits. Wrapping it all in with role-specific questions to ensure that the applicant has the capabilities necessary for them to be successful in the role.

2. Incite stories

The most insightful and relatable information comes through storytelling and, in order to find real value in a reference’s responses, you should encourage them to tell you a story. Instead of asking if the candidate was good at a particular task, invite the reference to describe a time they were asked to do it and how they performed.

A great way to do this is by asking questions that include both a rating scale and an opportunity to comment. This gives the reference a chance to explain their rating decision and will often encourage a more honest and considered response.

3. Be reflective, not predictive

All too often, reference checking conversations go down the path of asking if the candidate will be able to perform in the new role they’ve applied for. You cannot base your hiring decision on a reference's response to this as there’s every chance they will know nothing about the role or what you are looking for from your new hire.

Ensure all your questions relate to the performance of the candidate when they worked together, to avoid relying on uninformed insights or assumptions.

4. Account for a mix of skills

Those entering university today are doing so with a largely unknown future ahead of them and some will end up in jobs that don’t even currently exist.

We have to make sure our reference checks are reflective of this changing landscape and include the right mix of questions for the role not just as it looks now, but for how it may look in the future.

Reference checks can offer a goldmine of data and information to help us not only hire but also retain great people. But getting them right can be tricky, particularly if you’re using manual approaches. If you’re in need of a new reference template or want to simply take a look at the best-practice questions available via Template Builder.

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