Reference Check

“Would you like to see the results of this candidate’s reference check?” I asked.  “We don’t do reference checks”, she said. 

I was floored… 

I had been speaking with the Director of Clinical Operations for a mid-sized Sponsor who had been struggling with extremely high attrition rates.  Wanting to analyze their hiring process, the company had engaged me to help understand the root cause of their attrition. 

So I asked: Don’t you believe conducting candidate reference checks will give you an idea of the ‘real’ person you are hiring? Or at a minimum, confirm the insights you have already gleaned from the hiring process up to that point?

Busting Reference Check Myths

Like many of our clients, she believed the references provided by the candidate would always be glowing, therefore candidate reference checks were a waste of time. However, in a properly structured reference check process, you will find this is not the case.  

According to a recent Robert Half survey, US based Senior Managers reported eliminating roughly 34% of job candidates from consideration due to the candidate reference check.   We see similar statistics so can confidently state that conducting reference checks is a critically important step in your hiring process when done correctly. The key to success is in the reference check process itself. Here are some common mistakes we see many companies make when it comes to candidate reference checking.  

Mistake 1: Not Conducting the Reference Check 

As important as the reference results, the way the candidate executes the reference check process is a key indicator to the quality and character of the candidate. If you don’t conduct reference checks, you may miss out on important insights such as:

  • Did the candidate return the references?  We often see where candidates are unable or unwilling to round up references…and while a single instance of not returning references may not be a flag, a trend might be. 
  • How long did it take for the candidate to return references? While you want to consider delays in the whole scheme of the hiring process, do consider that a delay in returning references may indicate an underlying issue.
  • Did the candidate provide the bare minimum or less than requested? We ask for 2-3 recent supervisors and 2-3 recent site references, but often we only receive one of each. There seems to be a bit of rebellion in this act; especially if the candidate doesn’t explain why they aren’t complying with our request. This behavior could give you insight to how they will handle your or the sites’ requests in the future.    
  • Alternatively, did the candidate go over the top in providing references?  I haven’t seen it often, but have seen where a candidate will return many more references than requested. Depending on how ‘over the top’ the candidate is, this may be a flag as perfectionism or the desire to overcompensate could point to an underlying blocker for the candidate. And this behavior could translate to the candidate going over the top in the role. And I should note that while many feel perfectionism or overcompensation isn’t a bad thing, my experience is that perfectionists take longer to perform tasks and this translates into billable hours which will impact your budget. Ultimately, the real flag is whether all of the references actually respond.  Which brings me to the next point…
  • Doesn’t it raise a flag to you if a candidate lists 3 references and none of these individuals return your emails and phone calls?  Or 6 references and only one responds? 
  • Or alternatively, if the references provided give bad reviews, not only does the candidate need a reality check on how good they are at their job, but they are also seriously lacking the ability to self-assess. 

Who better to tell you about that candidate than people who have worked with them in the past?  Reference checks can be extremely powerful if conducted correctly. But be sure to only accept relevant references.  

Mistake 2: Accepting the Wrong Reference Types

About a year ago, I was interviewing a back-office candidate and really liked her. We discussed a potential start date and I told her about our reference check process.  I asked her to provide three supervisors total and explained that I wanted at least one supervisor from each of her last two positions. She confirmed understanding and told me providing references would be no problem. 

When she turned her references in, however, she skipped her most recent supervisor with a simple statement of “I can’t provide a reference from this employer…but don’t worry, it isn’t a bad thing.”


Part of an effective reference check process is to evaluate whether the candidate can follow instructions. Not only did this candidate fail in this regard, but she didn’t offer a reasonable explanation as to why she was deviating from my request.  In other words, had she just explained why she couldn’t provide the requested reference, I may have been okay to move forward with her candidacy. As it turned out, I rejected her candidacy as her references weren’t what I asked for.  

When you are defining your reference check process, be clear as to the type of references you require. You will want to define the ideal references’ roles as well as how long ago the individual worked with the candidate. 

  • Use a form for the candidate to complete. Ask for at least one email address, one phone number, the name of the company where the reference and candidate worked together, and the dates they worked together.  Having this information is extremely important when it comes to contacting the reference as well as during the fraud detection step.  
  • The most enlightening candidate references will come from recent supervisors.  If the candidate is a consultant they may not have a direct supervisor on the project.  In this case, ask the candidate to supply references from individuals who provided any type of work direction to them. Be sure to clearly state that you want those references from their most recently completed project. 
  • If you are considering someone who will be in a leadership or management role, ask for two or three recent direct reports in addition to the supervisor references. Along those lines, when vetting Clinical Research Associates, ask for site references as those individuals are well positioned to discuss the CRA’s responsiveness and knowledge at the site level.  

We recommend you reject references from colleagues, friends, spouses, aunts, mothers, pastors, and other non-professional connections. Personal ‘character’ references such as these are not likely to provide a clear picture of that candidate’s previous work performance.  

Mistake 3: Delegating the Reference Check Process to a Third Party

You know your company. You know your needs. And hopefully, you know the desired characteristics of the ideal candidate.  Therefore, make sure the individuals conducting your reference checks have the same knowledge. Translation: do not outsource your reference check process to an unaffiliated third party resource. 

I receive several reference requests a week from third party companies. They are always via email and the questions are simple and benign such as asking if I feel the candidate is honest and how I would rate their communication skills.

These are two very important questions…but enabling an unaffiliated third party organization to ask these questions via email will not result in the detail you need to make an effective hiring decision.  

  • Make sure you or someone from your hiring team conducts the references.
  • Use a standard template with open ended questions to interview each reference verbally.
  • Train the individual(s) taking the references on when and how to dig, when and how to use the ‘awkward silence’ to solicit more detail, and how to keep questions open in order to solicit more information. 
  • Additionally, train the individual taking the references on what is illegal to ask. 

We can help with these training sessions! 

Mistake 4: Not Conducting Fraud Detection on the References Provided

You hear us often talk about fraudulence, and while we certainly conduct a digital footprint analysis and fraud detection on all of our candidates, we do the same on the references provided.  

While there are obvious black/white situations that point to fraud, there are also a lot of gray areas to consider which may point to a bigger problem.  

  • Are the emails provided personal or work emails? An occasional personal email may not be concerning, but when all of the provided references have personal accounts, that should be considered a flag.
  • When you conduct a Google search or Reverse Phone Number look-up on the telephone numbers provided, does the resulting information align with the information given by the candidate? 
  • Are you able to find a digital footprint on the references? 
  • If a digital footprint does exist, does that digital footprint align with what the information provided by the candidate?  Meaning, is it clear they worked together in the roles stated, during the dates stated?
  • When you speak to the references, do they confirm all that you have been told by the candidate or learned from your digital footprint analysis?

Rather than asking colleagues, friends or family members to provide false references, there are also companies that will provide references for a fee.  A good example of this is a company called Paladin Deception Services which provides verifiable yet fictitious job references. I don’t want to link to this company from here, but a quick Google search will show how rampant this practice is.

When assessing the validity of candidate references, you want to look at the entire picture. We recently had an individual provide a site reference that had zero digital footprint. The email address was a personal email and when we searched the telephone number provided, it was actually for another individual (same first name, different last). We did find a digital footprint for that name…it was the candidate’s sister (yep).

Mistake 5: Not Leveraging the Candidate’s Qualification Responses

Make sure you review the behavior pattern as well as the responses to the candidate’s interview or assessment prior to your discussion with his or her references.  

For example, we always ask our candidates why they left their last several assignments.  We then ask the same question of their references to confirm the reasons align.  

If the candidate has been slow to return information (such as references), ask the reference if the candidate had to be chased for deliverables. If the candidate either missed or has been late to interviews, ask about the candidate’s punctuality and attendance. 

Mistake 6: Not Asking Detailed Questions of the Candidate’s References 

Avoid only asking generic questions about a candidate. Dig deep to discover their work ethic, how they build relationships, their key accomplishments, their strengths and weaknesses. For example, how did the candidate handle conflict? What operational processes did the candidate implement or improve? What were the endpoints of that extremely complicated project they stated they worked on? What were the candidate’s metrics in terms of meeting deadlines? How would you describe the quality of the candidate’s deliverables? 

Then ask follow-up questions. If a reference describes the candidate as an excellent team member, ask what she did in particular that made her excel as a team player. If at any point during the candidate reference check call, a reference states something that doesn’t align with the candidate’s resume or what the candidate has stated during the qualification process, be wary. Be sure to clarify with the reference to ensure you haven’t misunderstood, and if there are no other flags with the candidate’s credentials, you may also want to give the candidate a chance to explain. 

Mistake 7: Not Appropriately Using the Reference Information 

References are invaluable to predict how a candidate will perform in their future position; however, make sure you are considering the references received as only one part of the overall qualification process.  Immediately accepting someone because their references are glowing may be a mistake as honest references share both strengths and weaknesses. Alternatively, immediately rejecting someone because of a single bad reference may also be a mistake as the candidate may have other more important qualities which align to your needs. 

If you need assistance in your reference checking process, let us know and we will be glad to help!