Checking an employee's employment references can give you a lot of information you can't get from other types of background checks. You should ask every candidate for a list of references, one of whom must have been a direct supervisor of the employee. You need the candidate to give you up-to-date phone numbers and e-mail addresses so you can correspond with those references easily.

It used to be standard to call references for information; today however, it's perfectly acceptable to use e-mail to get in touch. In either case, here are a few tips for eliciting the most useful information about a candidate:

  • Ask open-ended questions: What were this candidate's strengths? How would his peers describe him? What do you think he's best at?
  • Pay attention to what they're not saying: Listen carefully to which words and phrases the reference is using and consider why the person chose them instead of others. Pay special attention when a reference is searching for the right word or hesitates before saying something.
  • Take glowing references with a grain of salt: Most job seekers pad their lists of references with people they know will say good things about them. Find ways to get past the glowing remarks to elicit real, substantive information. What were the candidate's biggest challenges? What skills did she possess that made her so good at her job? What characteristics does she need to work on to get to the next level in her career?

References are your best source of detailed information about the skills, characteristics, and habits of a potential employee. So use them as fully as possible to help ensure that you're selecting the right person for the job. Spend time talking to or e-mailing with a candidate's references, asking follow-up questions when needed. And be sure to be respectful of the reference's time.

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