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How valuable are reference checks for you?
Many companies require that candidates provide a job reference or two. And for the most part, the candidates provide contact information for friends and other colleagues who are guaranteed to say nice things about them.
In fact, even if a reference says something negative, it's doubtful that an employer would change his mind, as the reference check is usually the last step -- when you've already made up your mind that you want to hire the candidate.
However, there are some steps that you can take to make the reference check more meaningful. Here are a few ways to do it:
First, you may want to consider conducting reference checks earlier in the process, when the interview process is still competitive, Inside Counsel suggests. This doesn't mean that you have to call every applicant for the position. Instead, when you narrow the field to two or three candidates, you may want to start calling references. Some things to pay attention to on the phone may be the enthusiasm levels of the reference, and comments that are not overly glowing (because almost everything a candidate-provided reference will say will be glowing).
Next, as most references will be positive, you may want to ask specific questions. For example, instead of asking general open-ended questions like "How do you feel about Joe Smith?," you may want to ask questions like "How would Joe Smith handle managing three people?" or "What is Joe Smith's best management style?" By throwing the reference off script, you may get a more insightful and honest answer.
Finally, you may want to consider contacting individuals that are not candidate-provided. These clients will more likely provide you an unbiased (and more realistic) idea of what it is like to work with the client. However, there may be legal issues with this method too. So you may want to seek the candidate's consent or carefully consider whom you contact.