How to take a reference on a candidate that is tailored to the role

After a lengthy selection process you’ve found the person you think is the perfect candidate for your role. But before you get them to sign on the dotted line you have one last check to make – getting a reference from someone they’ve worked with before who can back up their claims.

How do you conduct a good reference check that will get you the information that you need to make the right decision?

Why are references important?

A reference is a testimonial from a previous employer confirming that the skills, knowledge, and reliability the candidate has attested to were actually present in their previous role. It can be easy for a candidate to shine themselves in a positive light, making them appear a better fit for the role than what they really are.

Speaking to a previous employer about their performance, behaviour, and responsibilities can either back up or refute some of their claims relating to their skills and experience. Perhaps some of their skills have been exaggerated, they may not work that well with others, or you can find areas that are important to you that the candidate can improve on.

Unless an effective and tailored reference is conducted, any employer can be at risk of hiring the idea of a person rather than who they really are in the workplace.

What kind of reference is optimal?

There are many different people that can be listed as references, from current and previous employers to colleagues and occasionally friends for character references. Collecting the right type of reference is important to gauge the individual’s current abilities and experience in roles similar to your advertised role.

A current or the most recent previous employer can be the most optimal reference. Their knowledge of the candidate and their individual responsibilities, attitude in the workplace and understanding of where they can improve will be up to date and current. Calling an employer that worked with the candidate 10 years ago is unlikely to reveal relevant information and, in most situations, will not reflect on their current career pathway.

How can you tailor reference questions to get to most relevant information for the role?

As the prospective employer you need to ensure your questions are aligned with the qualities and skills that are important to you and your company. Here are some ways you can tailor your reference to your role:

  • Asking about their ability to work with others or if they need constant management could be imperative information. For some industries, teamwork, and the ability to work well with others is important. For others, the ability to work autonomously and effectively with little supervision can be preferred.
  • Understanding the skills and responsibilities of the role will allow you to ask follow up questions to a candidate’s previous employer and ensure that they have fulfilled responsibilities or dealt with technologies and programs similar to what they will be utilising in new employment with your company.
  • Asking for examples of particular behaviours and skills can be an effective way to encourage a reference to go into more detail about the candidate’s standard of work and employability. Employers tend to remember stories of exceptional work or clashes in the workplace, this can be a good way to receive genuine in-depth reflections on your candidate.
  • How they could further develop their working or personal skills is an important topic to delve into. Some people may have few areas to develop, others may need to improve in areas that are important to your role. Some references may believe they are ready for the next step up, which is always a good thing to consider during their potential employment.
  • How to get the best out of the candidate can be a valuable question to ask as it can show the best leadership style to use when managing the potential employee and get the most out of their skills.

How do you know you’ve completed an effective and well-informed reference?

Once you have taken the time to identify the right type of reference to contact, asked questions tailored to the role you have advertised, and received detailed stories and examples of the work your applicant has done in the past, you will have a myriad of information to form a well-informed reference to help you determine if the candidate is indeed right for the role.