Referee checks are used to obtain independent information about a candidate’s capabilities, knowledge and experience from managers, peers or other stakeholders who have observed their performance in a relevant context.

About referee checks

Referee checks can be used to confirm and verify information gathered from the application, resume, interview and other capability-based assessments and to examine any inconsistencies.

The information obtained from referees provides insight into a candidate’s strengths and developmental needs which should be used to assist with their on-boarding experience and day-to-day management.

When to do referee checks

Referee checks are best done in the final stage of the recruitment process for the preferred candidate or candidates. Referee checks can be done for more than one candidate where the assessors need more information to separate the leading candidates.

You should not do a referee check on candidates you are not seriously considering for the role.

Referees

Referees need to have known the candidate for a reasonable amount of time (e.g. six months) and have good knowledge of their performance in a relevant context (e.g. work or education) to provide an objective assessment of their capabilities, knowledge and experience.

You should only contact the referees supplied by the candidate. If you believe there is a more suitable referee, speak to the candidate to seek their permission before approaching this person.

Note on referees being a direct manager

It is ideal for at least one referee to have been a direct manager to the candidate in the past two years. However, some candidates do not include their direct manager as a referee.

It is okay to ask the candidate why they have not nominated their manager to satisfy yourself that the reason is valid.

Senior executive employment

For senior executive roles, it is good practice to do a 360-degree referee check. This means conducting referee checks not only with managers but also with direct reports, peers, customers or other stakeholders who have regular contact with the candidate. Ideally this would involve one or more referee from each category.

Preparing for the referee check

Always let candidates know in advance that you would like to contact their referees. This is not only courteous; it also gives candidates the chance to let their referees know about the role and for the referee to prepare for your contact.

Verbal referee checks are encouraged because:

  • you can ask questions that are specific to the candidate and the role requirements (e.g. verify claims made by the candidate in their interview)
  • you can follow-up with probing questions to get the information you are looking for.

It is important to prepare properly for the referee checks so that you can obtain quality information about the candidate’s capabilities, knowledge and experience from independent observers. Preparation includes reviewing the candidate’s resume and assessment results and preparing questions to ask.
 

Questions to ask

You are looking to obtain from the referees their observations and experience of working with the candidate.

Employment-related questions

These generally refer to the candidate’s employment. Suggested questions include:

  • the nature of the referee’s relationship to the candidate (e.g. direct supervisor) and amount of time they have known them;
  • the candidate’s dates of employment;
  • confirmation of the candidate’s role;
  • the candidate’s responsibilities; and
  • the candidate’s reason for leaving (where applicable).

Performance-related questions

These questions relate to past experiences that show the candidate’s behaviours and performance. Some suggestions for question topics include:

  • work performance (e.g. how would you describe the candidate’s overall work performance?);
  • performance in typical work environments (e.g. does the candidate work well under pressure with tight deadlines?);
  • concerns about work performance;
  • strengths and how these contribute to individual and team outcomes; and
  • ethics and values (e.g. relationships with peers, managers, stakeholders etc.).

Assessment results

Where discrepancies and inconsistencies occur in assessment results, it is important to use the referee check to explore possible reasons for these discrepancies.

Development areas

Ask referees about the candidate’s development areas rather than weaknesses. This will help you to find out whether they could benefit from training or support which can be built into their performance management plan, should they be successful.
 

During the conversation

Take notes of your discussion with the referee. You can then share your notes with the other assessors and keep a copy for your recruitment record.

Considering the full range of information

It is best to evaluate all the evidence from all of the referee reports on a candidate together. This allows you to recognise patterns of behaviour rather than putting undue weight on isolated incidents.

Where discrepancies arise between what the candidate said and what the referee said:

  • consider the circumstances
  • contact more than one referee
  • evaluate the significance of the discrepancy – for example, is it a minor exaggeration or blatant dishonesty?

The results from referee checks should also be considered together with the application, resume, interview and other assessment results. Taking all of the information together helps you to take a holistic view of each candidate and make informed and balanced selection decisions.

If, after the referee checks, you are not comfortable to proceed further with a candidate, inform the candidate of your decision and decide whether there is another suitable candidate to progress to referee checks.
 

Traps to avoid

Often assessors fall into the trap of using referee checks to confirm a decision they have already made regarding their preferred candidate.

Another trap is to consider referee checks a “tick the box” recruitment step, and fail to prepare questions tailored for the role or candidate. If you don’t prepare to ask the right questions, you won’t get value out of the referee checks.

Do not ask referees questions about candidates that are of a personal nature and do not relate directly to the role. For example, do not ask about age, disability, marital status etc. unless it is an essential requirement for the role.