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Human ResourcesRecruitment

A Point of Reference

By November 24, 201113 Comments

When is the best time to conduct reference checks?

I thought I knew the answer to  this question, but events this week have compelled me to put this question out to you all in recruitment land.  Help me answer this question.

The reason I must know is that our standards of service have been called into question this week.  A recruitment client has sought a fee discount on our service because references weren’t conducted until offer stage.  The references raised some concerns, not insurmountable, but concerns nevertheless, and the client felt we ought to have conducted at least one reference before presenting the candidate in the first place.

It seems like every other placement we make recently ends up in fee negotiations upon reaching offer stage.  Excuse me while I scrub the word “GUM” off my forehead (well that’s what it looks like in the mirror anyway).  But that isn’t the real issue here.  Putting that aside, have we actually performed poorly in our recruitment process by not conducting references until offer stage?

Our policy has always been to leave references until later in the process.  As we recruit recruiters, it is usual for our candidates to be seeking extreme confidentiality, especially in a small industry prone to the odd bit of…what would you call it…gossip?  Obviously it is usually desirable to leave the current employer’s reference until the very last minute, but likewise many candidates don’t want their old bosses being contacted until later in the process either.  An initial interview might make it immediately apparent to both parties that the match is not right and it just makes things more awkward if the cat is already out of the bag that the candidate is looking for a new job.

Now there are occasions I will definitely insist on conducting at least one reference before presenting candidates to clients.  Candidates appearing shifty, evasive, or non-committal at interview stage, for example.  What they are unwilling to divulge in interview just needs to be dug up by other means, and a reference check is the best way to do that.  Similarly candidates who are phone interviewed.  If we are unable to meet someone in person and gauge the whites of their eyes then a pre-referral reference check is often in order.

So while we now know this new client’s expectations, and will make sure every candidate presented is referenced prior to arranging initial interviews, I’m not so sure if this is something we will apply as a widespread policy on every occasion.  My wife is an internal recruiter and told me that she used to receive numerous CVs floated in from a variety of recruiters, and never received references at the same time.

Have times changed?  Has best practice around this advanced?  Am I indeed providing a sub-par service by failing to reference check until offer stage?

What are the rest of you doing?

Jonathan Rice

MD at New Zealand rec-to-rec firm Rice Consulting and co-founder of on-demand recruiter offering Joyn. Recruitment agitator and frustrated idealist, father of two, husband of one, and lover of all things Arsenal and crafty beer.


  • Gareth says:

    We currently operate the same way Jon, usually consulting the clients before the checks to see if there are any extra points or concerns raised at interview stage they’d like us to drill down on with past employers.
    We have a few clients which this doesn’t fall true with and we know they require one up front, and like you always have a few candidates which we check initially for peace of mind. It will be interesting to read what everyone is doing.

  • pk says:

    My preference is for references to be taken late in the process, after the final interview but before an offer is made. I simply will not make an offer without having references.
    I think your client needs to shoulder some (if not all) of the blame here. If they have not identified these “concerns” through the interview process then they have not interviewed properly, and if they jumped right in and made an offer before the references were taken then, really, they are the mugs.

    • BD says:

      Don’t blame the client – if you have a proper briefing and build specific interview guides, you will select the right candidate.  Then there won’t be any major surprises or concerns at either client interview stage OR in the references, will there?
      Also, the client is paying you for your expertise and your service, not just a CV.  As a recruitment expert, you’d advise your client not to offer without following the full process, including reference checks, right?

      • Steven Brown says:


        When working with candidates I like to feel that the
        Customer is getting the very person available who matches the job
        specification. Because of this I wouldn’t present any candidate unless I had
        spoken with at least two referees. Obviously that would not include their
        current work place. I would also look at referencing the candidate through
        social networks to gain further information.

  • Jamie Holder says:

    I personally like doing one before and after second interview so if there are concerns arising from the 1st reference the client can drill down around them at second interview. Also, if something comes up at second interview that the client wants more info about it gives me the opportunity to do that afterward  – but most clients choose to leave both references until after the second.  And if in doubt about a candidate yourself…reference check upfront!

  • Luke says:

    Jon, working in R2R myself I echo your comments. In most cases it is very difficult to take a reference without comprimising the confidentiality of the candidate, and therefore can only really be done at the end of the process.  Clients need to have some faith that you are doing everything within reason to check the validity of a candidate before submitting them.

  • Stewart Farr says:

    Flip it around. Say you put yourself down as a referee for an ex-employee. They are now looking for work, and are quite diligent so you think they will find it soon. They apply to 5 jobs a day, with 5 different recruitment agencies. He tells you that he has done so – and to expect a few calls. Could you handle taking 25 calls a week for this person? Remember that no only are referee’s ex-workmates/bosses…..they are friends too. How about asking for reference letters whenever they apply? Because I would start ignoring calls if I was place in this situation talking to talk to 20+ recruitment agencies every week to ask if someone I know is a “good guy”. 

  • Karen says:

    It’s entirely impractical to do references before referring every CV/candidate, there’s simply not enough time in the day.  But it’s important to know your candidate so I do a social media check initially (which often leads to new connections for me too).  Then I complete one reference when the client indicates they want to do a 1st interview, often with a colleague or past manager (there are very few people who have paved the way properly with their current manager in advance).  I can then guide the client on where they should be digging further in the interview, and sometimes I recommend we pull the interview altogether based on the feedback – no client time wasted and they feel they’re getting a good service.  2nd/3rd refs are completed either in between 1st and 2nd interviews or prior to offer, but typically the final current manager reference is done at the last step.  That’s how we do it in our neck of the woods.

  • Bree says:

    Firstly – what issues were raised in your reference check? Were they behavioural or skills deficiencies?  Could these issues be uncovered during the interview process with more specific Behavioural Based Interviews, and/or having the candidate provide evidence to support their claims?? 

    Also – what was in your briefing?  Could you have made a better “match” for this client by uncovering more about their environment, this role and their expectations? 

    Our process is always to conduct one reference prior to client interview, with at least another one conducted at offer stage.  I believe it’s important to gather as much evidence as you can, whether this is through formal referencing, interviewing or other more “creative” means.  It’s your process, reputation and bottom line that is tarnished when things go wrong.

  • Hargsnz says:

    There’s no one size fits all. The process you describe is the best for the more senior or for roles requiring specific expertise. But relies on the recruiter being experienced enough to recognise when a candidate’s details have some issues & need checking prior to submission. One reason why references should be done post interview is that it allows you construct addirional questions & to raise any concerns that arise from the interview with the referees. But it needs to be done well

    before the client makes their final hiring decision. I suspect in this case, the references may well have been delayed past the best practice point, or that the communication to the client about not making their final decision until references were conpleted, may not have been fully communicated.

    I wouldn’t work for any client that insisted that full references be taken prior to submission.
    Hiring 50 call-centre operators yes, references first, but experienced Recruiters?

    Note the earlier comment on 25 requests per day.You’d be struggling for candidates & I’m appalled that it it seems your client is in the Recruitment industry?

  • Auck99 says:

    Like mentioned previously, you cannot take verbal references prior to the formal offer if a candidate is applying for multiple roles.  A couple of reasons, one is the time it takes for the referee to give the details and secondly, if they are doing this time and time again the reference will lose it’s edge as the referee loses interest.

    On some occasions if the candidate is only applying for one role or is not currenlty working then no problem.  However a potential new employer should never expect a reference from a current employer, especially direct manager prior to a formal written offer being made.

    What happened to the ‘offer pending references’ clause?

  • Fiona says:

    We only ref check at offer stage (perm) as its all about protecting the confidentiality of the candidate. As with Gareth we often have extra questions to ask after either 1st or 2nd interview and also Psyche Testing. We also like the candidate to do a little work by ensuring that they have spoken to the Referees about the role they have applied for. I dont see the relevance in ref checking some one prior to even putting them forward for a role…..which does happen and off course this is what gives the Industry a poor reputation .. lots of phone calls and no indepth questions asked.

    Amazingly we still have a large number of candidates who dont speak with their referees before putting their names on CVs 

  • Stewart Farr says:

    For the first time I had to stall the verbal reference process. After my verbal references were harassed for 30 minutes for 2 recruitment agents last week………I had to apologize to them. I am not saying you guys need to stop the verbal reference part of recruitment, but please think about the referee’s. As mentioned before – would you stick your hand up as a referee if you know your going to waste hours every week for a recruitment agent to feel safe about ex-employee? Out of interest how many of you have stuck you hand up to be a referee? 
    I know I certainly would haven’t been a positive and persistent as my referee’s. Which is why I need to give them a break.