Reference checks — What to ask and what not to ask

Is there any information which should not be sought during the reference check process?

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For many companies and recruiters, reference check is a tick-in-the-box activity. Many do not find it beneficial and some even consider it pointless. After all, the prospective candidates themselves give the reference, and therefore, they will be careful not to give the reference of someone with whom they are not on good terms. The reference will, in all likelihood, be a person who will never talk ill about the candidate.

If at all the company wishes to indulge in a reference check process, the primary objective should be to prepare the right set of questions. “One should be prepared with a definitive set of questions for reference checks,” advises Kinjal Choudhary, management consultant, D360one Consultants & HR leader, who personally practised this as an HR professional.

“I think asking about the ratings and past performance of the prospective employee during the reference check process is completely fine. After all, that is the very purpose of a reference check”

Kinjal Choudhary, management consultant, D360one Consultants & HR leader

Those who take the reference check process seriously, should be aware of some questions that need to be asked and some that need to be avoided. In some places, for instance, some states in the US, employers are not allowed to ask certain questions during the interview or a reference check.

In fact, almost half of the states in the US have laws pertaining to disclosure of the salary of former employees or current employees. Therefore, during an interview or a reference check process, one cannot enquire about the salary of an individual or candidate. Even demanding personal information such as the age or year of birth of the employee during the reference-check process is considered illegal in some states of the US.

Ranjith Menon, SVP-HR, Hinduja Global Solutions, shares that there are companies that follow a ‘no reference’ policy, which prevents the employer from giving out any information regarding a former employee to anyone. Menon talks about one of his previous employers, a big German conglomerate, which had such policy in place in Germany.

In India, however, there is no specific law that imposes restrictions on an employer when it comes to giving out information about the employee. There are hardly any organisations that follow a ‘no reference’ policy in India. However, HR practitioners should certainly have some best practices in place to be followed during the process.

“Reference check’s purpose is to have some objective and unbiased data points pertaining to the candidate’s demonstrated functional and leadership competencies in previous roles”

Milan Chattaraj, chief people officer, MTR Foods

The objective of a reference check will vary from organisation to organisation, as will the importance or weightage given to the whole process.

For some the process would be aimed at verifying what the potential candidate has said on paper, while for others it would be an attempt to evaluate the person’s competencies and obtain feedback on certain skills. “The purpose is to have some objective and unbiased data points pertaining to the candidate’s demonstrated functional and leadership competencies in previous roles and evaluate such feedback vis a vis the requirements of the role for which the candidate is being assessed and considered,” shares Milan Chattaraj, chief people officer, MTR Foods.

For Menon, “Reference check would just be a tool to verify what the candidates have said on paper and during the interview.”

As a best practice, some questions that employers can typically ask during the reference check process are :

· Till what date to what date did the employee serve in your company?

· Was the employee ever on a performance improvement plan (PIP)?

· Did the candidate have multiple jobs?

· Would you consider re-hiring the individual in your company?

Questions that should be avoided during a reference check process are those pertaining to:

· Ethnicity, race, background culture, political affiliations or religion

· Personal or private affair in the past

· Job performance such as rating scales

“Personal interviews and evaluations during the hiring process assess the capabilities of the candidate. Therefore, asking candidate’s former employers about their performance is pointless”

Ranjith Menon, SVP-HR, Hinduja Global Solutions

Whether enquiries should be made about the job performance or description of the candidates at their former workplace is a subject that is debatable. Some employers will not hesitate to ask in a straightforward manner, others still try to find out indirectly. “I think asking about the ratings and past performance of the prospective employee during the reference check process is completely fine. After all, that is the very purpose of a reference check,” opines Choudhary.

For Menon, checking the performance or competencies of a candidate is part of the interview process. “Personal interviews and evaluations during the hiring process assess the capabilities of the candidate. Therefore, asking their former employers about their performance is pointless,” asserts Menon. “If we still want to do it, we can find out indirectly by asking whether the person has ever been on a PIP before.”

In India, privacy laws are still at a very nascent stage and we do not really have any specific laws pertaining to what information can be sought from the previous employer. However, having some best practices in place is always desirable.

1 COMMENT

  1. Specifically ask whether the person was associated with any trade union or any other employee union.

    Also check his activities on social media

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