Don’t judge, just because you wouldn’t…


What is the purpose of a reference check? There may seem to be an obvious answer but some events in the Chorus Executive office over the last few weeks has made me question whether it is obvious to everyone.

As recruiters, we do hundreds of these checks a year. We’re good at them, so it is unusual when a client insists on doing these checks themselves. Recently an organisation we were recruiting for insisted on performing the reference checks themselves. Why? Because they didn’t believe the reason the candidate gave for leaving their last role. The reason given, to paraphrase, was for inspiration.

This hiring manager couldn’t believe, couldn’t fathom why someone would leave their job for another that offered less money but let them do what they were passionate about. They insisted there had to be another reason, a bigger reason, a better reason and perhaps a more sinister reason. They wanted to perform the reference checks to find out the “REAL” reason.

Now, the reason doesn’t really matter in this story. What matters is the lens through which this hiring manager was assessing the candidate. In their head, they wouldn’t leave a job for less money, no matter how much inspiration and passion they found in the role. So, if they wouldn’t no one else would either.  Were they just looking for a reason to say no?  Was there another reason why they didn’t want to press the buy button on the candidate even though everything else was right?  It felt like they were going to use the reference checks to find a reason to reject the candidate.

Judgements made based on a person’s own lens, experiences and beliefs is common and a great reason why using external parties like a recruiter to do the reference checks is a great idea. Recruiters are removed from the situation, have great contacts and networks to help get insight and insider information and most importantly they are practiced and experts at getting the answers needed to ensure a great placement.

If you can’t or won’t use a recruiter to do your reference checks than here is our advice to ensure you are getting the best result:

Avoid the informal reference check…

Talking to someone who knows someone who knows the candidate can land you in trouble. You don’t know their relationship or their interactions and a negative informal reference can land you and the reference in hot water.

Best practice - only talk to people you have permission to talk to…

Without going into the intricacies of the 1988 Privacy Act it is difficult to cover the complexities of privacy law. Instead, what we offer is what we see as best practice. Talk to referees that you have written permission from the candidate to talk to. Most candidates will have these readily available upon request. Keep all questions focused on the employment relationship. What their tasks were, results, length of tenure, skills and their conduct at work are all appropriate areas to discuss. Age, sexuality, gender, ethnicity or religion are not! Stick with best practice. (Links with further information about the Privacy Act and how it relates to references can be found below.)

Ask about the candidate’s areas of development…

Knowing what areas the candidate needs to work on will help you assess them for the role. Ask yourself if this weakness means they can’t do the job? Is it critical to role that they have that skill? Maybe it is something that would be nice to have and you can look at training them. Don’t write someone off because they aren’t great at everything – no one is and you will never hire anyone!

Raise any concerns…

If you have concerns about the skills, experience or any area of the candidate’s fit for you team raise these during the reference check process. A simple question formed around these doubts can go a long way to easing your mind. For example, if you are concerned about their work ethic then perhaps ask if the candidate has ever had issues meeting deadlines.   Asking “did they work hard” is subjective as for some people 8 hours is a fair day’s work whereas others might think this is a short day.  What is important is not the hours worked but whether they ever missed a deadline.   Whether they work 7.5 hours or 14 hours is irrelevant, what is important is if they got the job done.

Practice self-awareness…

Be aware if you are making judgements based on your own lens. Ask yourself “Does it make a difference to how they would perform the job?” Be self-aware enough to know whether you are just looking for reasons to reject someone. And remember, not everyone is like you nor do they need to be to be good at their job.

There is never going to be a 100% guarantee with a new hire, if you want that, don’t hire anyone. Be open during the process and try not to make judgements that don’t impact how a person can perform in their job. And remember just because you might not, doesn’t mean others won’t! Some people do leave a job to find inspiration!! If you are struggling to get by your own judgements, maybe it’s time to consider third party assistance which might be someone else either internal or external to your organisation.

If you are looking to recruit a new team member and the reference check process seems overwhelming and intimidating let us take the pressure off you. Partnering with Chorus Executive to grow your team will put the process in the hands of experts, who know how to find the right person for the job. To learn more about our recruitment services contact Christine Khor at or (03) 9698 8700.

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