The Etiquette of Calling for References

When you're hiring a new employee, it's standard practice to ask for references. Those references may represent the closest you come to running a background check of any kind on your prospective employees, making it crucial that you get as much information out those references as possible. Of course, you'll be talking to people who will only want to say nice things and who you don't know well enough to dig very deep with. How do you really make the most of a phone call to a reference, especially while remaining polite?

Asking for Negative Information Without Causing Problems

When you call a job applicant's past employer, expect to only hear nice things. It has become very difficult to get anything but a positive reference — even for an employee that a company was glad to leave. Partially it's a matter of some references just not wanting to give a negative reference, but there have also been many situations where a company chose not to hire an applicant on the basis of a negative reference — and then the applicant sued his or her former employer. Some companies have simply instituted a policy of either only giving positive references or refusing to do anything more than confirm dates of employment as a result.

But you have to get the full picture if you want to make sure that you're truly finding the best applicant for a job. There are ways to get a better sense of an employee's history, even during a short phone call. The secret is to ask open-ended questions: Asking a former supervisor to describe how an employee handled certain tasks can help you get at least a sense of the situation, especially if you can ask about specific examples. You may not get a negative review, but with a little practice, you can get a sense of when a reference has to dig for something nice to say or if a supervisor is holding something back.

Avoiding Even a Hint of Discrimination

Asking a former supervisor or another reference about anything that could contribute to accusations of discrimination should be avoided. This goes far beyond asking about an applicant's ethnicity, religion, or other matters of obvious discrimination. Asking about whether an applicant made adequate child care arrangements can be enough to cause problems (it is illegal to discriminate against applicants with children).

As a prospective employer, you can only ask questions that relate directly to a candidate's ability to perform the job he or she is being considered for. The same rule applies when interviewing an applicant — you simply don't want to have any information that could be the basis of an accusation of discrimination later on.

Making a Reference Call a Simple Matter

A past supervisor may get a whole slew of requests for references for the same individual at the same time, depending on how hard that person is looking for a new job. Taking that fact into consideration can make your call go a little easier. Simple etiquette, like making sure that it's a good time for the person offering the reference to talk, can dispose her in favor of offering you more information about your prospective new hire.

Ask as many questions as you can: This may be your only opportunity to really check up on a candidate. It may be appropriate to write out a list of questions before you make the call, so that you can be sure that you get any truly important answers. Some businesses use forms to guide reference calls, but such an approach can put constraints on the call that make it harder for you to get all of the information you need to make a hiring decision.

If You Can't Get a Reference

It's not always a simple matter to get a reference. Sometimes a company has a policy about giving references for past employees. Sometimes a supervisor has moved on and there's simply no one else who worked with your candidate. 

It's generally worthwhile to offer candidates the chance to provide a few other references (or at least try to find new contact information for the names you've already received). Even a simple check online can often provide you information. With social networking sites, it's becoming more common to be able to find individuals online and to verify the validity of an applicant's references.

Ideally, getting a reference for an applicant you're considering hiring should just be a matter of calling a few numbers and listening to past employers tell you how great this particular individual is. Sometimes, though, you need to put a little more work into it. After all, if you're going to trust a new employee as a part of your business, it's important to get as much information as you can to help you choose the right person for the job.

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