Have you ever wished that you had a crystal ball to tell you which job candidate will be the best fit for your open position? Turnover is expensive and avoiding bad hires can give a small business a distinct competitive advantage, saving time, money and lost productivity.

One way to get some good insight into how your top job candidates will perform at your organization is to check into their work at past jobs. But checking references can be tricky as the laws protecting employees and past employers vary by state and there is no way to ensure that you will get a detailed accurate response from the reference. A recent article from Harvard Business Review gives some additional best practices for checking references.secretary-544180_1280

Check the laws in your state. Utah for example, has reference immunity laws to protect employers. This means that a former employer cannot be held liable for information they provided in a reference check as long as that information about job performance, professional conduct, or evaluation of a current or former employee in response to a request from the current or former employee or a prospective new employer as long as it was provided in good faith. An employer is assumed to have acted in good faith unless the employee can prove with clear and convincing evidence that the employer provided information with actual malice or with the intent to mislead.

Even with this type of immunity, some employers will still feel uneasy providing detailed information about an employee. One way to make employers feel more comfortable about giving you information is to provide them with a signed written release authorization form the employee (contact us for a template you can use).

Specify what you are looking for. Ask the job candidate to provide references specific to the type of information you are hoping to learn. Ask to speak to former managers to assess overall performance and achievement, peers to assess cultural fit and subordinates to assess leadership abilities.

Explain why you need the reference’s help. Explain the benefits of having a reliable reference. Acknowledge that no individual is perfect and that it doesn’t do the company or the employee any good to be hired by a company where they are not a good fit.  Also explain that you will keep their comments confidential. Starting the conversation this way may help the references open up and give more accurate information.

Ask specific questions. Choosing carefully crafted questions that get to the root of what you are hoping to learn about the individual will elicit the best results. Simply asking, “what did you think about Jane’s performance?” is too open ended. Help the reference understand the position you are hiring for and ask specific questions about behaviors that will be important to the job candidate’s success.

Don’t forget soft skills and cultural fit. Ask some questions to help you understand work ethic, empathy, teamwork and cultural fit. These are difficult to discern from a resume and often even in an interview. A reference can be a great source for this type of information.

Assess growth potential. References can also be a great source for understanding potential. Ask questions about the job candidate’s curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination. Try to gain an understanding of the job candidates ability to grow, learn and adapt to changes.

Past behavior is a great predictor for future behavior. Take advantage of the opportunity to contact the references of your top two or three job candidates before making your final decision. If you need help, contact A Plus Benefits and speak to an HR Advisor.