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6 Tips for Taking and Giving Better References

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In an increasingly competitive hiring landscape, reference checking is more important than ever. It’s a powerful tool. A positive reference can help to propel a person’s career forward while a negative reference can save an employer from making a potentially damaging hiring decision.

However, there is still a sense in some markets, such as the UK, that references have had their day. At The FIRM’s Manchester conference, we (perhaps somewhat bravely!) led a discussion about the value of reference checks. It was clear that, while references are still seen as a valuable part of the hiring journey, the process has, for the most part, become a box-ticking exercise that’s no longer gathering the right insights.

Taking a good reference

What happens if you don’t take a good reference? Well, for starters you’ll miss out on a lot of valuable details about your candidate that you’re unlikely to learn from them directly. You’ll also risk making a hire based on a ‘gut feeling’ and could find out, further down the track, that the candidate is actually just great at interviewing and is lacking the skills needed for the role.

If a person seems like they are the right fit for your company by the way they present themselves, on paper and in person, you should definitely take the time to dig a little deeper and try to gain a better understanding of the whole picture, with some third party insights.

One of the attendees at our great debate session at The FIRM’s event stated, “taking a good reference is a skill” and we couldn’t agree more. Here are three tips to help you improve yours.

1. Plan your questions carefully

After interviewing your candidate, you would have already collected a lot of helpful information that can be used to inform some great reference questions. Consider following up on a situation that the candidate mentioned and hear about it from their manager’s perspective.

Be sure to ask open-ended questions that incite stories and avoid encouraging one-word answers. By being thoughtful about how you pose a question, you can get more relevant information from a referee that will give you confidence in your hiring decision.

2. Don’t give away answers to your questions

When conducting your reference checks it is important not to feed the referee the answers that you want to hear or offer a suggestion as to why you are asking it. This way, you can learn information that is not tainted by your own hopes for the candidate.

The way you structure a question can have a big impact on how the referee responds. Try asking them to ‘comment on’, ‘describe’, or ‘rate and explain’ their take on the candidate’s ability in certain areas.

3. Identify soft skills

A reference check is the perfect opportunity to learn about a candidate’s soft skills. Include questions that will help you understand how your candidate interacts with others; how your candidate responds when things don’t go to plan; how they handle working under pressure or how they problem-solve and brain-storm new ideas.

A reference check is also a great opportunity to find out how a candidate likes to be managed and what they respond positively to in the work environment. Do they prefer working closely with a team or are they better suited to working independently? Try asking for an example of how they navigate change or new opportunities to help uncover clues about their potential to grow in your company.

Giving a good reference

On the flip side, when it comes to giving a reference, there are a few things you should know to be sure that you’ll be helping your old employee advance in their career.

It is important to note that a lukewarm reference will do more harm than good and employers will sense your hesitation if you’re not willing to go into detail about a candidate. A neutral reference could be the tipping point for a company to think twice about making a hire.

Refusing to provide a reference can also be just as damaging as a giving a bad reference. But it can be the case that it’s against your company’s policy to provide references, in which case you’re left a little powerless. In this scenario, it’s always best to let the candidate know your position, rather than refusing their potential new employer.

When you are able to provide a reference, here are three tips to follow to make sure you’re doing the best for your ex-employee and their new employer.

1. Keep the information relevant and factual

Concentrate on the most relevant points about your former employee’s capabilities. A reference should never be given in the context of the new role the candidate is going for, rather they should be entirely reflective of their previous performance. Keep the information factual. Your comments should help to demonstrate how the candidate has previously behaved. Don’t be hypothetical by trying to predict how they will act in a future role.

2. Make your praise specific

When you praise or compliment a former employee’s performance, be sure to use specific examples of when this behaviour was apparent. Avoid using general niceties that don’t highlight the candidate's real strengths.

For example, “When Lucy managed our most recent fundraising campaign, her strategic approach and meticulous organisation of the project was outstanding and resulted in the company raising over £280,000 for an important initiative.”

3. Maintain transparency and authenticity

At all times throughout the reference, be sure to be honest and authentic. A lie can come back to bite you and won’t necessarily be helpful for the candidate in their new role if they can’t do what you’ve said they can. Be truthful and transparent about what you are saying and give clear examples.

If you are asked about a candidate’s weakness but you’re confident about their capabilities, reframe the question and talk about their areas of opportunity for growth. You can use this question to shed some light on how you have witnessed or helped the candidate to grow in previous areas of opportunity to demonstrate their ability to learn or adapt.

If you’re embarking on a reference-checking process, or have been asked to provide one, it can be a daunting task without taking some time to consider how to make the most of the opportunity. These tips will provide a step in the right direction. If you’re looking for a little more help in building the best reference template, make sure you also read our blog “What Makes a Great Reference Check?”

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