5 Ways to Source Reliable References From Job Candidates


When a potential employee hands over “references upon request” how do you know the references are reliable?

After all, most people will only supply names of those expected to give a positive reference. More to the point, people have been known to fabricate references altogether by making up positions they never held in companies that never existed and have now “gone out of business” or by having friends pose as previous employers.

Either way, a reliable reference is the only useful reference, so how can you be sure you’re able to source reliable references? 

Here are some best practices to guide you along the way:

1. Do a Bit of Legwork

Assuming you’ve gotten the candidate’s permission, a so called backdoor reference check (i.e., references from people not listed on the candidate’s formal reference list) is what many recruiters recommend and can yield useful information about the candidate’s work habits and work history. Review the employee’s LinkedIn profile for past associations who haven’t made it to the list but who you have a legitimate interest in contacting. However, don’t talk to the candidate’s current employer. That’s just bad form and could cause all kinds of trouble for the candidate as well as besmirch your company’s reputation. It is also often very time consuming. Below, we'll see easier ways to do it while getting results that are just as good.

2. Be Specific

When requesting references, ask for what you want. Do you want the name of at least one previous manager? Say so. Looking for someone who’s known the candidate for more than 2 years? Put it in writing. Are you interested in speaking with a former subordinate of the candidate’s? (If you’re hiring for a managerial position or above, this is a particularly worthy idea.) Ask for names. Many managers are skilled at “managing up” and creating a great impression on senior leadership, but their direct reports would paint a far different picture of the managers’ skills.

3. Vet the References with Care

Always ask for the name of the reference’s current employer and call the company directly (rather than using a cell phone number provided by the candidate) or use corporate email addresses to verify the reference works where the candidate claims. If the reference has moved on to another company or retired, call the company to confirm he or she did work there in the capacity stated and avoid getting a bogus reference from a “manager” who’s really a former peer. Also, when contacting the reference, verify the nature of the relationship and how long the reference has known the candidate. Be sure and document any discrepancies for follow up.

4. Focus on Collective Intelligence

Multiple references harness the power of collective intelligence, and that’s a very good thing. Through collective intelligence, data from various sources can be weighed properly, and there’s a much better chance of getting well-rounded data, too. Contacting and analyzing multiple references can be time and energy consuming, but automated reference tools like Checkster do most of the work for you and candidate often provide many more references while no additional work is required from you.

5. Keep It Professional

As mentioned earlier, you’ll want to obtain candidate permission before contacting any references the client didn’t supply. The permission does not have to be for specific people (a generic consent will do), but the inquiries do need to be work relevant, and you should know ahead of time what information you’re hoping to extract from each reference so that your questions are brief, pointed, and professional.

Reference checking services are crucial basic due diligence for hiring managers and recruiters, but sourcing reliable references can be more difficult than expected. Aside from the time spent contacting references and waiting for a response—a given where manual reference checks are concerned—the references can produce unreliable data if proper preparation isn’t given to deliberately avoiding that possibility.

What other ways have you sourced reliable references from prospective job candidates?