The Biggest Reference Check Mistakes Employers Can Make

by Stacy Pursell, CPC, CERS

The VET Recruiter®

I’ve mentioned before in my articles and blog posts that the margin for error for Animal Health and Veterinary employers in this current margin is razor-thin. That’s because we’re in a candidates’ job market where top candidates hold the majority of the leverage.

As a result, any mistake that an employer makes during the hiring process can have a negative effect on the search. Specifically, it can cause the employer to lose a top candidate because the candidate drops out of the hiring and interview process. And I mean any stage or aspect of the hiring process—and that includes reference checking.

Unfortunately, some employers underestimate the importance of checking references. Reference checks are not a formality. In fact, I’ve addressed reference checks before in one of my blog posts. In that post, I presented five tips for checking a candidate’s references:

  1. Collect between three and five references.
  2. Choose the references that are likely to help the most.
  3. Go beyond the basic questions.
  4. Consider checking references later in the process.
  5. Make sure that you’re following the rules.

While these are solid tips, they don’t cover the topic of reference checks in a comprehensive way. That’s because reference checking is a nuanced process. If you forgive the pun, you just can’t “phone them in.” To conduct references in a thoroughly effective fashion, you must take a proactive approach that emphasizes strategy. The ultimate goal of this strategy is to find out the information that you want to find out while also keeping the candidate fully engaged and interested in both the opportunity and your organization.

With that in mind, below are the biggest reference check mistakes that employers can make:

#1—Checking references “behind the candidate’s back”

This is the biggest mistake that an employer can make, which is why I made it #1 on the list. Allow me to explain what I mean by going “behind the candidate’s back.” Let’s say that after interviewing a candidate, everyone involved in the process is impressed with the candidate. Then, one of the people involved in the hiring process finds out that an employee in the organization knows someone that the candidate knows. This could be someone the candidate has known in the past or currently knows, it doesn’t matter. This is what is known as a “backdoor reference.”

The problem arises when the hiring manager or someone else at the organization decides they should reach out to this mutual acquaintance and basically conduct a reference check. This can be troublesome for many reasons, especially if the person is someone with whom the candidate currently works. Now, I must state that it is not illegal for an employer to contact people who are not specifically named as references by the candidate. However, just because it’s not prohibited does not mean it can’t be problematic.

One of the reasons it can be problematic is that the candidate is most likely conducting a confidential job search. That means no one, with the exception of their significant other and your organization, knows they’re exploring other employment opportunities. Which also means that if you conduct a “backdoor reference” check, then you could compromise the confidentiality of the candidate’s job search. In other words, their employer could find out what they’re doing. And although that might not result in anything catastrophic for the candidate in terms of their current employer, it is sure to annoy them and quite possibly convince them that they don’t want to work for your organization after all.

Here are a few guidelines for this situation:

  • Do not check references from a candidate’s current employer without the candidate’s express permission to do so.
  • Do not check references with a person that the candidate has expressly asked you not to contact.
  • You have the latitude to reach out to additional references at the candidate’s former employer, but make sure to get written permission from the candidate first!

#2—Not including the candidate in the process

The goal of reference checking is to verify certain information and find out other information. The other information includes the candidate’s weaknesses. Obviously, the candidate has provided the names of people who are not likely to say anything negative about them. However, reference checks that only result in glowing reviews aren’t completely helpful.

That’s why it’s a good idea to talk about references and reference checks during the face-to-face interview.

Let the candidate know that you will be calling their references and ask them what they think those references will say, both good and bad. This approach helps you in two key ways:

  1. It allows you to explore areas of weakness during the reference checks that the candidate specifically mentioned during the interview.
  2. The candidate feels more comfortable about the reference checking process and more at ease with you and the organization.

On the other hand, not including the candidate in the reference checking process can limit the effectiveness of that process.

#3—Not asking probing or in-depth questions.

The reason you want to ask these kinds of questions is because you need to determine if the candidate is truly exceptional. A reference should be able to talk about the positive attributes of a candidate at length. Short answers, even if they’re positive in nature, are not indicative of an exceptionally strong candidate. In the best-case scenario, all you should have to do is mention the person’s name and the reference will immediately begin to gush about all the value that the candidate provides to those around them.

In addition, do not settle for general or vague answers. To paint an accurate picture of the candidate, you need specifics. The more information, the better. If someone is not forthright with their answers or they appear to be avoiding your questions, it could be a red flag. After all, the reference should be more than willing to espouse the virtues of the candidate who provided you with their name.

Reference checking is not a formality. With the margin for error in this current market as thin as it is, employer mistakes are magnified. Make sure that you or your organization do not fall prey to the three mistakes listed above.

We help support careers in one of two ways: 1.By helping Animal Health and Veterinary professionals to find the right opportunity when the time is right, and 2.By helping to recruit top talent for the critical needs of Animal Health and Veterinary organizations. If this is something that you would like to explore further, please send an email to stacy@thevetrecruiter.com.

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