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Give Your Reference Checks a Check-Up


"Given the option of either interviewing a candidate without checking references or checking references without interviewing, I would choose the latter." – Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a senior adviser at global executive search firm Egon Zehnder, quoted in the Harvard Business Review.

Companies need an average of 23 days to screen and hire candidates. This is nearly double the time invested in 2010. What's driving the increase? Companies are spending more time interviewing candidates, conducting reference checks and taking additional steps to make better hiring decisions.

Navigating Reference Check Minefields

Reference checks are a common component of the hiring process that helps HR or hiring managers to find an unbiased, outside perspective on a candidate. Experience, interviews, and education provide important insights. But what about the things that are more difficult to discern from a candidate's resume and brief interactions with staff? That's where reference checks can come in. However, they're not a panacea for all of your company's hiring issues. For example, they cannot:

  • Provide as much assistance to employers when they are faced with other companies’ policies against providing detailed references on past employees, out of concern for legal repercussions
  • Prevent candidates from prepping their references on what to say, so there may be little original thought or fresh insight shared
  • Keep the conversation from turning into a situation where the recruiter leaves without a deeper understanding of the candidate

Despite these drawbacks, reference checks can be a valuable hiring tool, provided you know who and what to ask.

Ask the Right Questions

It's critical that recruiters know what to look for during a reference check. As the Harvard Business Review notes, reference checks should "present a consistent story about who [they] are, what [they] are good at, and what it is [they] want to do with their career." Recognizing a natural, flowing narrative may help reinforce that you're getting good information. Other potentially effective strategies may include:

Establishing the context for how they know the candidate:
Dig deeper to understand how they know the candidate. Were they a direct supervisor or a casual coworker? How long did they work together? How closely did they interact? Proximity is often a good predictor of how accurate the insights will be.

Ask for examples rather than opinions:
It's easy for reference check conversations to evolve into vague statements like "he's a good team member" or "she was very productive." Ask for specific examples; probe for multiple details and data to back up the reference's opinions. It's much more valuable to know that a candidate successfully led a sales team to close a million dollar deal or that a writing candidate produced the most effective marketing materials within her group.

Explore work styles and collaboration approaches:
Another useful line of inquiry is asking what it was like to work with a candidate. Ask a reference to describe his or her work style. Explore an example of where they collaborated, and what strengths and weaknesses were revealed during the process. Find out if each reference would hire or work with the candidate again.

Pose theoretical scenarios:
What tasks or projects will this person be managing or be accountable for? Don't be afraid to ask questions such as, "Would you have this candidate present an idea to a client?" or "Could this candidate independently manage an audit from end-to-end?" Phrasing questions this way helps references apply their knowledge of a candidate in a way that's directly relevant to the job you're filling.

Ask for more references:

If the references aren't yielding the insights you need, ask the candidate to provide additional options. It's worth the time and investment to get actionable data that can inform your hiring decision.

Reference checks can help recruiters and hiring managers develop a realistic, 360-degree understanding of a candidate. Invest the time to ensure you're making the best hire possible.


This website contains articles posted for informational and educational value. Paychex is not responsible for information contained within any of these materials. Any opinions expressed within materials are not necessarily the opinion of, or supported by, Paychex. The information in these materials should not be considered legal or accounting advice, and it should not substitute for legal, accounting, and other professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant.
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