Reference checks are a funny beast.
Most hiring managers I have met tend to view them as a waste of time. In larger bureaucratic organisations they end up becoming merely a box-ticking exercise in arse-covering. "Well I checked their referees so I cannot fathom why I didn't know they are actually a homicidal psychopath who likes urinating in the pot plants."
In smaller organisations referee checks just seem like an unnecessary overheard. "We met them, we liked them, they liked us, let's make an offer."
One of the most common arguments I hear against reference checks is that if you ask a prospective employee to give you people to contact then you will naturally only ever get referees who give ringing endorsements and sing the highest praise possible. Therefore, the argument goes, you might as well assume the referees are good and save yourself the fifteen minute phonecall.
If that sounds like you then I am sorry to be the one to tell you but you are not doing reference checks properly. There are a whole range of good reasons why a reference check is important but I'm not going to cover them here. If you want useful and instructive, if not a little boring, articles on why and how to conduct a reference check then you can find dozens online with a simple search.
Instead, I want to to talk about 3 uncommon reasons why you should do reference checks.
3 uncommon reasons why you should do reference checks
Across my career I have interviewed hundreds of candidates and conducted many dozens of reference checks. That experience has led for me to observe some interesting occurences in the world of reference checks, including these uncommmon reasons why you should even bother.
Reason 1: Learn how to set them up for success
One question I nearly always ask is "Do you have any advice for me? If I become their next manager how will I be able to get the best out of them? What do I need to do to set them up for success?"
It's a powerful question and I get a lot of insight from the responses.
I view this line of questioning as nearly the number one reason anyone should do a reference check. Think about it. Most of the time you've already done the hard work of screening, interview, and testing the candidate so you already know that you want to hire them. Instead of wasting the reference check on bog-standard questions that give you no new insights why not take a different approach?
Ask how you can create an environment for this person to thrive in. Find out the best way to set them up for success.
If you ask this question, actually listen to the answer, and follow through on their advice then you nearly always guarantee that this will be a great hire for your team.
Reason 2: a chance to get your story out
Part of doing a reference check is to ensure that this role is right for this person. They might be a fantastic candidate with brilliant technical skills who simply breezed through the interview process but you need to be sure the role fits properly.
Do they have enough core skills so they can hit the ground running and add value from day one but are they also going to be challenged (and enjoy it) enough that they don't get bored?
Does this job align to their career goals and progression? Are they interested in this job specifically or just running away from a current bad job?
To help you figure this our the referee needs to know more about you, your company, and the specific role. What a great opportunity to tell your story!
Delivering a well-honed, passionate, and insightful description to a referee probably sounds pointless to you. You're not hiring the referee so why bother giving them your great pitch?
Apart from providing enough information so the referee is able to ensure the role does in fact align to the skills and personality of your candidate, a brilliant rendition of your company's story can also turn the bored-only-slightly-obliging referee into a staunch supporter and fan. A fan of you, your story, and your company.
There are many benefits that flow from turning a referee in to one of your fans. They might refer other candidates to you (I've had this happen on the same phone call), they might talk enthusiastically about the role to the candidate and help them minimse buyer's remorse (I've had this happen too), and they might even self-select in as a potential candidate to join you in the future. And yes I've had that happen too.
Which segues (not segways) to:
Reason 3: You might meet someone fascinating
A referee check is a ~15 minute phonecall, often with a person in a position of power and responsibility, operating in the same industry as you, and with an inferred level of trust.
There is great potential lying dormant in every reference check.
But if you approach the reference check as a boring monotous task then that is exactly what it will be. Boring.
If you approach the referene check with vigour and enthusiasm you might just meet someone interesting. Someone who has different experiences, someone who knows things you don't, someone who shares interests, someone who happily trades stories and knowledge with you.
During the course of conducting reference checks I have begun new friendships, been given sage advice from seasoned veterans, and I have even turned referees into potential candidates. All this just because I was open to having a good conversation.
That seems like 15 minutes well spent to me.
Don't just do reference checks to tick the box. Do them because they are worth doing