Checking Candidate References: Don’t Leave it to the Intern

It’s been the status quo for decades. And it’s inefficient, inconsistent and risky. What am I talking about? Traditional phone-based reference checking for candidates.

But it remains the only way we can be sure our candidates are genuine. It’s the only way we can get an independent assessment of their strengths and weaknesses – yes, even independent of our own biases during interviews. And perhaps most importantly, it’s the only way we can get deep insight into a candidate’s personality that will help us manage and retain them effectively. 

So why is reference-checking often left to the most junior person in the team?

You may be thinking, is it really that important? Is the downside that serious?

We know recruiters assume and accept some level of exaggeration by job-seekers, but they shouldn’t – or shouldn’t have to. However, most of us have no idea how rampant this problem is.  

We recently created the Xref Recruitment Risk Index to really quantify the problem Xref is addressing.

Of the 1,000 jobseekers who responded to the survey, 84 percent had applied for two or more jobs in the past two years, and 30 percent had applied for 10 or more. The results were shocking:

  • Forty-two percent of the candidates had abandoned their job applications due to delays at the reference checking stage.
  • Twenty-three percent of respondents admitted they’d actively encouraged a referee to lie on their behalf by exaggerating their experience or pretending to be someone they were not.
  • Twenty-seven percent of those surveyed admitted they were comfortable asking a friend or family member - with whom they had no professional connection - to act as a referee.

And remember, this is what people were willing to admit. We can only imagine the numbers might really be higher than this.

With the war for talent becoming more globalised and more competitive than ever, your business simply cannot ignore the need for an efficient, candidate-friendly reference checking process.

So, I ask again: why are you assign reference-checking to the intern?

Often, reference checking is left to the most junior team member. In some cases, the process is conducted by someone with limited experience in HR or recruitment.

We get it. It’s time-consuming. It’s a burden for businesses.

But, inexperience leads to discriminatory questions being asked about the candidate. Three in ten survey respondents (29 percent) who had acted as referees were asked for inappropriate details, including:

  • The candidate’s age (15 percent);
  • Whether the candidate has children (11 percent);
  • Their marital status (10 percent) and;
  • Their sexual orientation (seven percent).

These questions are all illegal.

And even if your organisation has produced a questionnaire for reference checking, the conversational nature of a phone call often leads to questions outside of the agreed scope.

This lack of standardisation in reference checking is a significant challenge. Paired with inexperience, and your organisation is taking a big risk.

Think about what you’re communicating to candidates when you take two or three weeks to process a reference. That your business is disorganised? That you don’t value new hires enough to prioritise them? That necessary checks and balances are ignored? Whatever the impression, it’s not a good one.

In addition, since our research showed that four in 10 candidates abandoned applications because of delayed references, you’re losing the cream of the crop to your competitors as a result.

The flipside? Well-conducted references are a goldmine of information for HR managers and line managers to understand what candidates want from your organisation, and their strengths and weaknesses, which helps you keep them engaged and productive in their role.

Efficiency in recruiting means efficiency across the business, with fewer staffing problems, lower turnover and lowered risk. 

So how can we help?

Maybe we’re a little biased, but making the most out of your reference checking process truly is the best kept secret for the HR industry. OK, maybe we’re a lot biased, but an automated solution like Xref provides a level of security and data-led accuracy that cannot be met through traditional phone-based methods.

The platform detects any inconsistencies or concerns in the details a candidate provides for a referee and, if identified, it alerts and offers clients the opportunity to question the candidate. Xref’s process is a deterrent for those who would otherwise consider exploiting the system.

As part of the research, we asked more than 1,000 of our Xref users to respond to the same questions. Xref respondents were found to have lied less, faced fewer problems and were happier with the process. This was attributable to three key observations:

  1. Less misrepresentation by candidates
  2. Increased transparency for candidates
  3. Reduced discrimination by employers

Improving efficiencies in the reference checking process will help you to nab and keep great talent, all while protecting your organisation from risk and inefficiency.   

Reference checking may be a pain point for HR managers and recruiters that ends up going to the most junior person, but it can be a real asset. Whatever approach you choose, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by underestimating its value.

More information about Xref is available at

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