As a recruitment agency, we conduct reference checks for candidates at all levels – meaning we have carried out literally thousands of verbal reference checks during our 30 years recruiting in New Zealand. We’ve heard it all – from glowing praise to scathing comments and everywhere in between.

Providing a verbal reference for either a current or former employee is a crucial stage in the recruitment process – typically this means they’ve made it through the interview and are now seriously being considered for the role. Or perhaps minds have already been made up and this is one of the last formalities before signing on the dotted line. Either way, it’s vital for you as a referee to understand the importance of the role you play, and how you can best handle the verbal reference!

Here’s our latest “top tips” to guide you through:

Get the right time and space:
A thorough verbal reference check can take up to 30 minutes, so if possible arrange to do the reference at a time and place that is conducive to giving your full attention to the call. Given you will be talking about personal details, it’s best to have this conversation away from others so you can be open and frank in your comments.

Get the background:
If you can, review a copy of the position description for the role in question so that you can get an idea of the skills and competencies required, and how the person you’re providing a reference for might suit the role and organisation.

Be timely:
If you have consented to being a referee, try to be available and responsive to the phone calls and/or messages when they come through. You could be putting the job-seeker at a disadvantage by delaying or ignoring the call. A referee that is persistently hard to get hold of or doesn’t return calls can be a red flag for a new employer – so unless that’s your intention, try to provide the reference in a timely manner.

Be honest:
As a referee you’re expected to give an honest appraisal of the candidate in question, and sometimes this means sharing some hard truths. However always keep your comments professional and keep in mind that verbal references are often transcribed for future reference, so don’t say anything you wouldn’t be comfortable defending or let personal biases influence a fair appraisal.

It may be tempting to give a glowing reference about a not-so-impressive employee because it means they become someone else’s problem if hired. But consider your professional reputation – the new employer is relying on you to provide a genuine appraisal of the candidate’s past performance and suitability for the role in question. If you twist the truth a bit, or outright lie, it’s going to become apparent to the new employer that either your judgement is bad, or your comments weren’t an honest reflection of the person. Neither is a good look, and in a “town” like New Zealand, it’s not worth having something like this affect your credibility.

What if I’m not comfortable being a referee for this person?
Being asked to be a referee might be a bit awkward if you don’t feel comfortable recommending the person. Whatever the reason may be, don’t feel like you have to say yes – as the old saying goes “if you have nothing nice to say…say nothing at all”; sometimes it’s in the best interests of everyone to politely decline.

Honesty is always the best policy. Whilst it might mean a slightly uncomfortable conversation with the candidate, it’s better for them to know now, than be set up to fail. So if you don’t feel like you’re the right person to be their “champion”, you need to let them know asap.

What kinds of questions will I be asked?
A typical verbal reference will confirm employment details such as job title, responsibilities and length of time in the position. Also expect to be asked about that person’s reason for leaving their role, strengths and weaknesses and how they interacted with others.

Other areas that you can expect to be covered are:
• Attendance/punctuality
• Ability to cope with pressure and workload
• Working environment that will suit them best
• Communication skills
• Whether you would re-employ them again

When carrying out verbal references, we tailor our questions to suit the role in question, so there’s certainly no one-size fits all approach!

Whether it’s your first time being a referee or your thousandth, this is a vital part of the recruitment process, and your contribution can often make or break the candidate’s chances of getting the job. If you’re ever unsure about how to handle a certain situation when it comes to being a referee, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the team for a confidential chat.

Best wishes,
Kirsty and Nikki

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