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How to use a Professional Reference Check in the Hiring Process

By: Celeste Ricco Tuesday, 13 December 2016


Why spend time on calling a professional reference when hiring a new employee?

Because the Professional Reference Check is an invaluable step in the hiring process!

Here’s why:

Professional Reference Checks give unique, first person insight into your applicant as a colleague and employee

It goes without saying that a job applicant is focused on leaving little room for doubt that she is the right person for the job. Is it possible you’re being duped by charisma, spin and quick thinking?

Without a reference check, you might not find out until you’ve already hired her.

With a reference check you’ll learn someone else’s opinion about why this person was great. Whether or not they were on time and reliable. You might even find out if the excellent communication skills you observed during the interview were just for show or completely sincere.

Background Screening companies tend to get more out of a professional reference than the actual prospective employer

In general, your applicant’s reference will be more forthcoming when the person calling to conduct the reference is one of our researchers than a prospective boss/employer.

Let me explain.

Think (waaay) back to grade school, now that you know teachers and parents were in cahoots. The grownups knew that kids were more likely to tell their teacher something than mom if they weren’t sure if they should talk about it. Like when your mean 4 year’s older sister who pinches your arm and takes your Little Debbie Cupcake that your mom packed for you every day on the bus when all I wanted was my delicious favorite cupcake with my lunch. (Sorry. PTSD. But you get the picture.) Mom couldn’t get it out of me, but Ms. Sorrento did it in a single try!

Choice Screening is the teacher; you’re the parent. Because we’re not directly akin to the applicant’s new job people tend to open up to our researchers.

In fact, when a reference feels strongly about a negative characteristic your applicant exhibits, they will often try to convey this during our interview – whether directly or indirectly it’s still there.

Yes, the understanding from the applicant is that their reference will accentuate their awesomeness… But, if you can up the honesty dial just a touch isn’t that worth it? 

Professional reference checks extend beyond the employment verification by revealing personalized details

When conducting an employment verification, previous employers are limited in what they can disclose especially when that information is negative.

In fact, most companies avoid the “risk” of saying too much by subscribing to databases that provide our researchers only the exact information that they wish to disclose.

Professional references have not carried the same restrictions within company policy as employment verification.

Although some companies may ask managers to refrain from providing a professional reference, it is rather uncommon. More often than not reference interviews are treated like a letter of reference with much less restriction.

With all that… Professional reference checks are super valuable, agreed?


Now let’s get into conducting and using them!

With a little prep, your applicant can help professional reference interviews be completed faster

We begin calling references within 1 business day – nearly every time it’s the same day the request is sent over.

When you’re ready to send us reference checks, here’s what you need to tell your applicant:

Hey there, possible new employee. I’m going to be calling your references. Can you call them first to:

  1. Make sure they’ll pick up a number they don’t know in the next few days.
  2. Make sure they have voice mail that’s not full.
  3. Make sure they’ll call you (so you can call me) if they don’t hear from someone by x/x/xx date. (Around 4 business days in advance of sending us the request.)

Doing so will achieve two VERY important things:

First, the interview might be completed on the first attempt (we try three times).

Second, if we happen to catch the reference at a bad time they will be able to call back.

Seriously! These are the two things that almost always cause delays with reference checks.

When you get the professional reference results read it and digest it

Look for cues that support your opinions about the applicant… good and bad.

Some employers will even use the reference results to guide questions in follow-up interviews. This is a great tactic because you suddenly gained personal insight from someone who worked directly with your employee.

On that note, the best part about professional references is you can conduct them at any point during the hiring process

It’s time to disrupt the status quo! Employers invariably initiate professional references at the very end.

Have you ever thought about using professional references to screen before the initial interview?

Think about it. Professional references arm a prospective employer with:

  • Personalized insight about relevant professional qualities
  • An outside perspective from colleagues or managers
  • Information beyond what the applicant disclosed in the cover letter, resume (and what you found on LinkedIn)

Wouldn’t it be awesome to kick off the first or second interview with all this? 

Even better – send us the real standouts right away so we can get started and as you continue to sort through the remaining resumes. This way you’ll get a steady stream of results!

Just make sure you still follow Consent Form and Adverse Action compliance, and request professional references in a consistent manner

Should the professional reference influence your decision to disqualify an applicant, Adverse Action requirements still apply. You also need to get a signed consent form before proceeding with a professional reference even if you’re not conducting other parts of the background check yet, like the criminal record search.

If you’re in a jurisdiction that has background check restrictions, such as Fair Chance and Ban-the-Box laws, consult an attorney to ensure you don’t inadvertently violate the law.

A best practice to avoid discrimination is to conduct background checks in a consistent manner for all applicants ensuring variations are not based on protected class status, such as race, age or gender, among others. This includes professional references.

Professional references are an excellent way to gain keen insight into your applicant. Are you ready to get better background check results?

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Topics: Background Check, HR, Best Practices, Hiring, Professional Reference

Celeste Ricco

Background screening enthusiast. Blogger. FCRA Advanced Certified by NAPBS. Dedicated to all things background screening!