Checking references is an accepted part of the hiring process. Yet, when you ask managers about reference checking processes, you often get mixed results.

Some have the attitude “We don’t bother, because no one is going to give us a reference that will say bad things about the applicant.”

Or they’ll assume they are allowed to ask only about dates of service or position held – information they don’t think will be particularly useful.

If done right, however, reference checking can provide very useful information about whether or not a prospective employee is a good fit for the job in question.

So, how do you do it right? Consider these points:

1. Be specific about the references you require. Many candidates will come to you with a prepared reference sheet. They will list three or four business references and two or three personal references. These are people they have hand-picked for the job, and yes, as noted earlier, they probably picked people they thought would say good things about them.

The first key to good reference checks is to talk to the RIGHT references. Make sure the applicant provides “supervisory” references. Ask them to provide the names and contact information of their last several direct supervisors.

If they can’t give you any supervisory references, that may be a red flag. One exception does exist. If they are applying for work while they still have a job, they may not want you to contact their current supervisor or company, and that is understandable. Still, previous employers should be fair game.

2. Prepare for the reference checking process. What do you really want and need to know to help you determine if the person is a good fit for the job in question? Just as you prepared interview questions that were job related, do the same with reference questions. List the specific job-related attributes that you need, and ask references to rate the person on those attributes. You can even use a 1 to 10 scale to help make it easier for the reference. If they don’t feel qualified to comment on any item, they can pass.

For example, if you’re interviewing for a bookkeeping position, you may determine that you need great attention to detail, precision, willingness to follow policies, integrity, etc. Ask the reference to score the applicant on those attributes.

You can also ask about work ethic, punctuality, attendance and eligibility for rehire. But be careful not to ask for specific information about health conditions or physical challenges that are covered by the ADA.

3. Ask a few good open-ended questions in your process. Then be quiet and listen carefully to the responses. Even references who are trying to be positive about a candidate may share something that will help you know whether or not THIS job is the right job for the applicant.

For example, a good question to ask is “If you could have changed anything about this person while he/she worked for you, what would you have changed?” This doesn’t have a particularly negative slant – you’re not asking what’s WRONG with the person.

People will generally start their answer with “Nothing really” But if you’ll be quiet and patient, most will come back to a point or two that the person could work on. For instance, the reference might say, “He was really a hard worker, but he sometimes took on too much and didn’t let us know he needed help until the last minute.”

Again, this may not mean they are a bad candidate in general, but it may tell you if they have a weakness that would be serious in the position being considered. It may also just let you know what type of training you may need to provide if you do decide to hire the applicant.

4. Use the phone. Many people are more willing to say something over the phone than they are to put it in writing. While a written reference form may provide accurate information on dates of service, position held and salary, it isn’t likely to be the best way to capture someone’s concerns about a former employee.

5. Keep references confidential. If you want people to be honest with you, they need to know their comments will not be shared with the applicant. Don’t be surprised if applicants ask if their references said something bad about them, particularly if they aren’t offered the job. Stick to your guns and don’t disclose any information about the specific reasons for a no-hire decision.

Calling references should definitely be part of your hiring process. And if handled correctly, the time spent making those calls will pay off in better decisions.