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Get the best from a reference check

There’s more to reference checking than ticking a box – these tips will help you get the best information about an applicant so you can be confident you’re making a good decision.

When to conduct a reference check

Reference checking is often the last step in the hiring process – when you’re pretty sure who you want to hire, but before you’ve made an offer. Talking to the right people and asking the right questions can help confirm you’re making the right hiring decision.

Always speak to at least one referee before hiring someone, and ideally two. As well as confirming your applicant’s work history and skills, they can help you get a better idea of how your applicant works and if they’ll be a good fit for your organisation.

The applicant will usually provide two referees of their choice for you to speak to. If there’s someone else you’d like to talk to, discuss it with the applicant – you need their consent before speaking to anyone about them or you’ll be breaching the Privacy Act.

People often won’t want you to speak to their current employer until they have a confirmed job offer. If they don’t give you a past employer that you want to speak to, ask them why – it might tell you a lot. If you need a reference from a particular person because it’s relevant to the position, you should explain why. If the applicant refuses, you might be justified in not offering them the role, as you don’t have enough information to judge their suitability.

For some roles, as well as speaking to a previous employer, you might want to speak to a former colleague or to someone who used to report to the applicant, to get a wider view of how they work in a team.

Privacy Act (external link) - Privacy Commissioner

The Privacy Act requires that you get consent from the applicant before contacting referees.

The Privacy Act requires that you get consent from the applicant before contacting referees.

The applicant should let their referees know to expect a call from you, but you might want to arrange a specific time to talk, so you both have enough time set aside for a useful conversation.

Before you phone the referee, check with anyone else on your team who interviewed the applicant about whether there’s anything else they want to know about the applicant. Use this information to help guide the questions you ask.

To get the best information possible from the referee, don’t be too formal. Approach it like you’re having a casual conversation, not conducting a formal interview. Try to establish a rapport before you start asking questions – tell them what you like about the applicant, and give an overview of the role and responsibilities you’re considering them for. Have some prepared questions that you want to ask, but don’t be afraid to let the conversation stray outside of them – this is when you can get some of the best information.

Think about what you want to find out about the applicant and tailor your questions around that. Your questions should be open-ended, so you get more than just yes or no answers, but specific enough to get the details you want, eg, ‘What are Lisa’s time management skills like’, not ‘Tell me all about Lisa’. Ask for examples of a time when the applicant did something you want to know about.

The types of things you want to cover off might include:

  • confirming when the applicant worked for or with the referee and what their role was
  • what their skill level is
  • how they work as part of a team
  • whether they have any areas that need development
  • how to best manage them.
Ask open-ended, specific questions.

Ask open-ended, specific questions.

Example questions

  • Confirm that the applicant’s employment dates, job title and responsibilities match what was in their CV or discussed at the interview.
  • What were their biggest achievements at work?
  • What are they really good at?
  • What are their areas for improvement?
  • What were their relationships like within the team/with people reporting to them/with wider stakeholders?
  • What types of stressors existed in their position and how did they handle stress?
  • How much supervision did they need?
  • What management style works best for them?
  • Were there any issues or concerns, like lateness?
  • Would you hire them again? Why?

Selecting and appointing employees (external link) - Employment New Zealand

Stay focused on the skills, experience and competencies required for the job to avoid any issues around privacy and discrimination.

Don’t ask about things like:

  • race or ethnic background
  • age
  • disability
  • sexual orientation
  • family situation.

Information for employers (external link) – Privacy Commissioner
The A-Z Pre-Employment Guide for employers & employees (external link) – Human Rights Commission

After you've checked the references

If you’re told something during the reference check that isn’t what you expected, you can go back to the applicant for clarification, but remember that the information disclosed to you by the referee was given to you in confidence.

Just because you check an applicant’s references does not mean you are locked into hiring them, but if you are satisfied with what you hear in the reference check, the next step is to make a job offer.

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