5 Mistakes To Avoid When Conducting Reference Checks

Reference Checks

Background and reference checks are a vital part of any interview or hiring process. Yet many organizations get reference checks wrong, placing their entire process at risk. As a part of our search process here at Vanderbloemen, we help our clients conduct thorough reference and background checks on potential hires. Thus, we have seen some common mistakes that organizations make related to the reference checks process. Here are five common mistakes to avoid when conducting reference checks:

1. Failing to Do Them

A reference check is an opportunity to protect your church by learning how candidates have conducted themselves in past positions. Failing to follow through and perform a reference check introduces a significant, yet avoidable risk. 

Reference checks are not an opportunity to dig up dirt on a candidate; rather, the process allows you to learn more about his or her strengths and the best way to manage the person. Even if you are confident that the candidate will have only positive references, you can rest easy knowing you did your due diligence.

2. Contacting References at the Wrong Stage in the Process

At Vanderbloemen Search Group, we have seen churches request references at a variety of points in the search process. Some churches want references before they have had any interaction with the candidate. For other churches, reference checks are an afterthought for the weeks after the job has already been offered and the contract signed.

A church can do reference checks at any point they wish. From our experience, however, we recommend talking to references after initial interviews but before an offer has been extended. 

Contacting references after initial interviews allows you to ask references about any concerns that may have come up during your initial conversations with the candidate. Tweet:

By completing the reference and background checks at a strategic point in the interview process, you create a window of opportunity to take action with the information that you have gained. Likewise, if a reference’s response to any of your inquiry causes alarm, you have time to ask the candidate for an explanation

3. Talking to the Wrong People

At Vanderbloemen Search Group, we ask candidates to provide references that fit in one of three categories:

  • individuals to whom they reported
  • colleagues or peers
  • individuals that reported to them

By talking with individuals in each of these categories, we can stitch together a complete picture of how a candidate relates to those in leadership over them, how he may work with colleagues, and how the candidate leads those under him. If a candidate provides a family member as a reference – even if the family member supervised them – ask for additional references. The opinion of a loved one (or even a well-meaning mentor) is usually biased – for better or for worse.

4. Asking the Wrong Questions

Before you start calling references, ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this call? What information do I want to obtain?” Once you have a clear answer to that question, then you can sit down and formulate questions to help you get the information you are seeking. If, after your first interview with a candidate, you have questions about their leadership abilities, focus your questions on that area. If you are hiring a Student Pastor and want to know how they have interacted with parents, create questions that allow you to hone in on that information.

It’s fine to have a general template of questions to ask as a starting point; just be prepared to add additional questions so that you can get enough information to make the best hiring decision for your organization.

5. Failing to Act on New Information

Once you talk with a candidate’s references and feel comfortable making the hire, don’t throw out everything you learned from her references.

References shed light on what a candidate may need to thrive in your work environment. Tweet:

Sharing the information you learned during the reference check with the appropriate people will allow you to best manage and lead your new hire. If you talk with a candidate’s supervisor and he states that she is great relationally but needs help staying organized, be sure to connect her with a talented Administrative Assistant or make sure she has accountability markers set up to keep her on track. Likewise, if you learn that your Senior Pastor is an amazing visionary but is an introvert, share that information with your Senior Leadership Team so that they know not to plan an all-staff party on his first day in the office.

What are some strategies you utilize when conducting reference checks? Are there any lessons you've learned from your own experience?The church leader's guide to conducting effective reference checks