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The critical role of reference checking

Reference checking is one of the most important parts of the recruitment process. This article explores some of the finer points.

The recent acute shortage of skilled hospitality staff in Melbourne and Sydney has highlighted the importance of reference checking in our recruitment process. We’re doing a lot of it at the moment and I won’t kid you and tell you it’s our favorite job. It’s normally quite time consuming, and chasing people all over the globe by telephone can be very frustrating, if not expensive.

Why bother?

We do it because it’s a necessary part of good recruiting. I was first taught structured reference checking forty years ago when I was a management trainee in the fast food industry. Like a lot of the people we train, I first took the attitude that I could pick ‘em and that I didn’t need to ask anyone else’s opinion. I figured the reference checking procedure was for people who weren’t as smart as me. Then I met the first of the many ‘con artists’ I’ve encountered and it cost me so much money to get rid of them I vowed never to put another person on without checking them out properly.

There is a natural tendency for people who are applying for jobs to 

The motivation for seeking new jobs is often the potential for a big pay rise. This brings-out some impressive acting skills.

present themselves in the best possible light. After all, this is their big chance to get a pay rise. People usually only get large lump increases when they move to a new job and take a sudden leap up the ladder. Other people apply for jobs outside their experience desperately trying to restore a lost income. When you can’t pay the rent or the school fees, you’ll do all kinds of strange things to restore your family’s security.

Deception can be the norm

They come with their mask on. your job is to find-out what lies below.

People range from what I call ‘honest’ — these people only fudge dates on resumes, ‘gild the lily’ to a minor degree and won’t come clean when they’ve been fired from a job — to the total bullshit artist who will look you in the eye and tell you anything they think you want to hear with frightening sincerity.

We’ve learned that the more impressive a person is in an interview, the more we should be careful and check them our thoroughly. Recently I interviewed a young man who seemed to be ideal. My client, who  

sat-in on the interview, was quite excited and argued to put him on without all the delay and cost of reference checking. I had to dig my heels in and insist on the full procedure. I’m so glad I did.

His former boss and the one before both gave me the same story. ‘Don’t touch him’ they both said, ‘He knows it all in theory, but he’s very lazy and he’s not good with staff, customers or with money’. Both of them said they had been warned when they reference checked him but had chosen to go on their gut feelings instead; to their regret and to a considerable cost in both cases.

Prepare appropriate questions

We always prepare a list of reference checking questions for each job we’re recruiting for. We construct this from the job description and person specification for the job. Sometimes there are thirty or forty questions on the list. I’m quite lucky — one of my staff can type a transcript as the person on the other end of the phone speaks, so I get a full written record of each reference. You may have to be content with summary notes.

We’ve found that most people we contact are happy to give the time for a reference, but will only answer direct questions about a person and will not 

Prepare a list of questions based on the job description and person specification.

volunteer information that is not specifically sought unless the person being checked has been a total liability.  This is why pre-prepared questions are a must. Be specific, ask questions like: ‘How would you rate their staff handling?’ or ‘Were they reliable in terms of coming to work on time and taking days off?’ If you don’t ask, you won’t find out.

Be aware that to some extent you are at the mercy of the standards of the person you are talking to. If they run Faulty Towers and you run The Ritz then you may have a problem. What’s good to them may be very average to you — like when we are reference checking Chefs who have come from a pub environment and who apply for a lesser position, maybe as a Sous Chef in a better hotel or restaurant, and we ask their previous boss ‘How would you rate their cooking skills?’ One place is trying to build a Ford while the other is trying to build a Rolls Royce. Are we going to talk the same language?

Don’t be afraid to chase references overseas if necessary — it won’t cost you much. We often get resumes listing jobs in the UK, Europe, Asia and the US. These places are only a phone call, or email away, but there seems to be a mental block in many people that creates an imaginary barrier to overseas communication.

Cross check everything you are told

Staff member taking notes while talking to a referee.

We normally check back seven years and always verify dates of employment, job title and major duties. When doing reference checks we quite often find applicants have given themselves promotions or more grandiose job titles on their resumes and do not list jobs they only stayed in for a couple of months. If we can’t locate their immediate superior, we ask to speak to someone who worked under them.  


One way or other we have learned not to rest on our interviewing skills and  not to trust what we read in resumes. A resume should be regarded in the same light as you regard real estate photos; they are designed to make a sow’s ear look like a silk purse.  A few hours of inspired detective work can save you a lot of angst in the future — besides you don’t have to do this yourself; reference checking is a logical job to delegate to a trained member of staff.

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article please consider the following courses,

For documentation to support the management systems discussed in this article, please visit our resources website.

If you are not sure where to start, contact us now to speak with a consultant.

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