Episode #120 – Best Practices for Conducting Reference Checks as an Employer

Samantha: Welcome to “The Animal Health Employment Insider,” brought to you by The VET Recruiter. In this podcast, executive recruiter Stacy Pursell, founder and CEO of The VET Recruiter, provides insight and practical advice for both employers and job seekers in the Animal Health industry and Veterinary profession. The VET Recruiter’s mission is to help Animal Health and Veterinary companies hire top talent, while helping animal health and veterinary professionals attain career-enhancing opportunities that improve their quality of life.

In today’s podcast episode of The Animal Health Employment Insider, we’ll be talking about best practices for conducting reference checks as an employer. Hello, Stacy, and thank you for joining us today.

Stacy: Hello, Samantha. As always, I’m glad to be here for our second podcast of the new year.

Samantha: We haven’t talked about reference checks on the podcast before. How important are they in terms of hiring?

Stacy: They are definitely part of the hiring process, and they’re an important part of the process. However, there are different schools of thought regarding reference checks. Believe it or not, some employers don’t check any references these days. Then some explorers take it to the other extreme. They ask for as many references as possible, and they check them all—up to 10 or more. Extremes rarely represent the best way to do something, though.

Since the ultimate goal is to hire the best candidate possible, reference checks should be conducted. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today, the best practices for conducting reference checks as an Animal Health employer or Veterinary employer.

The key to successful reference checks is actually the same as the key to just about everything in life: preparation. In this case, it’s knowing who you’re going to call, which questions you’re going to ask, what information you’re going to share with others in the hiring process, and any other circumstances that deal specifically with the reference checks.

Samantha: So what is the first step in terms of reference checks?

Stacy: The first step is knowing who to call. Of course, you want to speak with the most unbiased people possible, but that is a bit difficult since the candidate is the one who provided the list of references in the first place. So more than likely, the reference is going to say positive things about the candidate. Some of the people you might want to speak with include:

  • Previous supervisors
  • Peers
  • Mentors (if applicable)
  • Colleagues (including subordinates, if appropriate)

When it comes to gathering more objective information, previous supervisors and mentors are valuable references. Peers are less valuable in that regard, but they can still provide insight, since their relationship with the candidate is different than the supervisor or mentor.

Samantha: Stacy, that all makes sense. What’s next in terms of best practices for conducting reference checks?

Stacy: What’s next is that I have a list of five tips for when and how to conduct reference checks.

The first tip is to conduct reference checks once an offer is both extended to the candidate and the accepted by the candidate.

Samantha: Wait, shouldn’t an employer check them sooner than that?

Stacy: Actually, no. In my experience as an executive recruiter and search consultant, I’ve found that after the offer has been verbally accepted is the best time to check references. When you do that, you can make the hire contingent upon the completion of successful reference checks. If you check them before this point, you could jeopardize the candidate’s current employment situation if they are currently employed.

Samantha: You mean if other members of the candidate’s current employer find out that they’re interviewing with other organizations?

Stacy: Yes, that’s right. And I’ve seen some unfortunate incidents where employer conducted “informal reference checks” that threatened the confidentiality of the candidate’s job search. That’s not good.

Samantha: What are “informal reference checks”?

Stacy: That’s a situation where someone at the organization knows someone at the candidate’s current employer or a past employer. So instead of conducting a formal reference check, which would be to contact one of the references that the candidate presents, this person calls their own contact at the organization. They don’t even have to call the person while they’re at work. They could call while they’re at home or over the weekend.

The person might think that they’re doing a good thing, finding out as much information as possible about the candidate.

Samantha: But who knows who their contact is? There’s a good chance they’re not on the list of references that the candidate supplied.

Stacy: Exactly? And that’s exactly the problem. They could be a co-worker, or they could even be the candidate’s boss. That’s the last thing the candidate wants. That’s why it’s important to stick to the list that the candidate provided. They selected their references for a reason, and one of those reasons more than likely involved protecting the confidentiality of their search.

And if an employer breaches the confidentiality of a candidate’s search, then there’s an excellent chance that employer will not be able to hire that candidate—even if they want to. I’ve seen that happen before.

Samantha: So what’s the next tip?

Stacy: Once you call a reference, ask specifically how the reference knows the candidate.

Samantha: Shouldn’t you already know that?

Stacy: Theoretically, yes. However, you can’t make assumptions. You know what the candidate thinks is the relationship they have with this person. Now you have to find out what the reference thinks their relationship was or is. Hopefully, it will be exactly what you think it is, or at the very least, it will be close.

Not only that, but you have to know the relationship between the reference and the candidate before you can accurately gauge the weight of the reference. Establishing the scope of the relationship is an important step.

And that leads right to our next tip.

Samantha: Which is what?

Stacy: Once you’ve established the relationship between the candidate and the reference, this is the time to address any concerns that were uncovered during the interview. Remember, as mentioned earlier, the best time to conduct the reference checks is after the offer has been made and accepted. Since that’s the case, the interviews have already been conducted, and since that’s the case, some concerns may have been uncovered. This is the time to bring them up during the reference checks.

Instead of asking general questions, you’ll be able to pose specific questions relevant to whatever value the candidate will bring.

Samantha: Everything comes down to value. Isn’t that what we’ve discussed before?

Stacy: Yes. Everything has to be measured in terms of value. After all, the candidate might be a great person. The could be kind, generous, caring, etc. But these wonderful qualities don’t matter much if they aren’t quantifiable results behind them. You have to ask the right questions. What has the person accomplished? How did they achieve their accomplishments? What characteristics or attributes have helped the candidate in their success?

Samantha: Stacy, I believe we have one more tip to go. What would that be?

Stacy: This last tip has to do with how the company official interacts with the person who is giving the reference.

Samantha: What do you mean, exactly?

Stacy: You want stay positive and update while you speak with references. Keep in mind there is a degree of personal branding involved here. You need the reference to provide information for you, and they’ll be more willing to do that if you’re positive and upbeat in the way that you approach the conversation. People are more likely to open up if the discussion is positive in nature and energetic. And that’s what you want—you want them to open up and tell you what they really think.

Samantha: Stacy, all of this makes perfect sense. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we conclude today’s podcast episode?

Stacy: Yes, I’d like to add that when an Animal Health or Veterinary organization engages the services of a search consultant or executive recruiter, the recruiter can conduct the reference checks for their client upon request. This takes the burden off those within the organization who would typically conduct the reference checks and allows them to tackle other important work on their desk.

Samantha: And I imagine that the more experienced the recruiter, the more experience they have with reference checks and the better they are when it comes to conducting them.

Stacy: That is absolutely correct. Reference checks comprise just one part of the overall value that an Animal Health recruiter or Veterinary recruiter can provide for their clients if requested but I do understand why some hiring managers prefer to do their own reference checks.

Samantha: Stacy, thanks so much for joining us today and providing all of this great information.

Stacy: You’re very welcome, Samantha, and thank you. Once again, it’s been my pleasure, and I look forward to our next episode of The Animal Health Employment Insider!