When employers think of a reference check, they often consider just one person: the job candidate's former boss. Worse, some employers skip looking into a candidate's background altogether.
Companies can't afford to cut corners while conducting a reference check. Talking to a potential employee's former boss is not enough--former co-workers can give employers a more in-depth look at how a candidate works.
A June study from SkillSurvey found that when professional references provide open-ended feedback, managers tend to emphasize task-related behaviors (e.g., meeting deadlines, working independently), while co-workers emphasize interpersonal behaviors (e.g., helpful, compassionate, listening).
Tiffany Schaar, vice president of operations and employee development at PR agency Sterling Communications, says she experienced this firsthand when she contacted a candidate's former co-worker.
"Her previous supervisor had great things to say about her ability to manage clients, juggle new business, and always meet deadlines," said Schaar.
Schaar continued: "But the candidate's colleague gave me a detailed example of how well the candidate helped with training her. She documented everything, spent one-on-one time with them, and left her with a cheat sheet that she ended up using the entire time she worked there."
This gave Schaar a better idea of how the candidate would work alongside current employees, which helped her make a more informed hiring decision.
When it comes to reference checking, here's how employers can get the most out of a candidate's co-workers:
Explore areas for improvement.
Co-worker references tend to talk about the positives, but that may only be one side of the story.
As Ariana Moon, senior recruiter at Greenhouse, an ATS and recruiting software company, found, it's best to encourage references to share where the candidate can improve.
To do this, Moon takes a specific approach:
"I like to start by asking the following question: 'What is something Laura helped you do better?' Then, I'll follow up by flipping the question: 'What is something you were able to help Laura do better?'"
"The key is to phrase your questions in a way that allows you to understand your candidate's strengths and areas of improvement without making references feel that they're talking explicitly about weaknesses," said Moon. "It's about asking guiding questions that lead to detailed and constructive conversations anchored in real-life examples."
Technology can help employers manage and track this information. Tools like ONEMINT streamline this process. This workforce management solution simplifies recruitment and talent acquisition by helping employers source, track, and evaluate top talent.
Co-workers typically spend more time together than they do with their bosses, so they can provide more accurate information about how a candidate performs.
Meghann Isgan, human resources manager at Readers.com, an online retailer that sells eyewear, suggests a two-part method. First, ask the candidate how their co-workers would describe working with them. Then, ask their co-workers the same.
"If the co-worker's response aligns well with the candidate's answer, it tells me the candidate has a good awareness of how others perceive them, which is essential for adapting to different teams," she explained.
"One candidate said she was a great team player. Her previous boss gave her a glowing review, but the co-worker shared how the candidate often steamrolled others to get her way and wouldn't consider opinions from those who disagreed with her."
The co-worker's honesty ultimately helped Isgan avoid what could have been a bad hire.
Look for verification.
Some candidates may appear perfect on paper, but appearances can be deceiving. Reference checking with co-workers helps employers verify information on the candidate's resume.
"Look for trends in co-workers' answers that are consistent or contradictory with what you've learned," said Emily Elder, practice development manager at RiseSmart, an outplacement and career transition services company.
"You should also be looking for specific examples of how the employee has performed under specific circumstances," she said. "By asking situational or behavioral questions, you can learn how your potential employee may respond if faced with similar situations in your organization."
If everything lines up, employers can be more confident about what type of employee the person will be.
Assess teamwork skills.
As the creator and a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) of the From The Inside Out Project, a program that focuses on improving the attitudes and behaviors of hourly employees, Laura MacLeod learned a lot about how to assess a candidate's specific skills.
When consulting for a social work agency, she found it hard to gauge a candidate's interpersonal skills when talking with their co-workers.
"They would say the candidate was 'positive and very enthusiastic,'" she said. "These general comments aren't useful."
If the position requires working with others frequently, it's a good idea to learn about the candidate's teamwork skills. So, ask co-workers for specific examples of how the candidate works and collaborates with others.