8 min read

How to Effectively Communicate with References in an Online Setting

Checking Job References is Important for Hiring Great Employees As a recruiter or HR professional, one of your key jobs is to find the best people to hire. But how do you really know if someone will be a great fit? Getting information from their past job references is crucial.

A job reference is someone who has directly worked with the person you want to hire, like a past boss, coworker or teacher. They can give you an honest view of what it's like to work with that person. References help you:

  • Confirm the candidate did the job duties and had the skills they claimed
  • Learn about their work habits like being on time, teamwork ability etc.
  • Understand their strengths, weaknesses and personality fit

Without contacting references, you're really just going off what the person told you in an interview. Smart companies always check references to make better hiring decisions.

The Challenge of Doing References Online In the past, most reference calls were done over the phone. But today, more hiring happens online through video calls, emails and chat. While convenient, online references come with some challenges like:

  • It's harder to build trust and rapport through a screen
  • Written messages can be misinterpreted without vocal cues
  • People may be less open when not speaking live

An effective online strategy is needed to get quality reference feedback. Here's how to ace online reference communication.

Preparing Your Approach: Setting the Right Tone Like any conversation, how you approach the reference starts things off on the right foot. A few tips:

Use a Friendly, Casual Tone (without Being Too Casual) You want the reference to view you as approachable while still being a professional. A tone that is warm and conversational, but still polished, works best.

"Hi Jane, I'm currently interviewing Former Colleague for our sales program here at ABC Corp..."

Be Clear About What You Need Right Away Don't make the reference guess why you contacted them. Explain upfront that you're doing a reference check and what specific info would be helpful.

"I'm looking to understand how well Former Colleague worked in a team setting, handled deadlines, and demonstrated sales skills during his prior role at Acme Inc."

Acknowledge Their Time is Valuable References are typically very busy people, so appreciate their making time for you. A little acknowledgement can go a long way.

"I know you have a lot on your plate, so I really appreciate you taking some time to provide your feedback."

Conducting the Online Reference Interview Effectively

Live Video Calls are Best (If Possible): While emails and chats are convenient, a live video conversation is the ideal way to build rapport and observe body language. Virtual face-time also allows you to ask follow-up questions.

If doing a video call isn't possible, be prepared to go back-and-forth a few times to gather all the details you need.

Ask Specific, Situational Questions: To get quality insights, avoid yes/no questions. Instead, ask situational questions that require more details, like:

"Could you share an example of when Former Colleague had to deal with an upset customer? How did he handle that situation?"

This gives you a real scenario to evaluate skills like problem-solving, communication style, etc. Ask follow-up questions to dig deeper as needed.

Cover Key Areas Like:

  • Job duties and skills for the role
  • Strengths and areas for improvement
  • Personality and fit with your culture
  • Attendance, reliability and work ethic
  • Teamwork and interpersonal abilities

Request Examples and Anecdotes: Always ask for concrete examples to illustrate the person's abilities. This gives you a clear picture rather than generalized statements like "she was a hard worker."

Focus on Positives AND Growth Areas: While you want to know the candidate's strengths, it's also helpful to uncover areas for professional growth and development. A reference should provide a balanced, well-rounded view.

Stay Professional Yet Conversational: The interview should feel more like a dialogue than an interrogation. Ask questions in a casual, conversational way while still maintaining professionalism. Avoid getting overly chummy.

Building Trust and Getting Open Responses

The reference's willingness to be fully open and honest is critical for accurate insights. Here's how to put them at ease:

Explain How the Info Will Be Used

Make it clear the feedback will be kept strictly confidential and used only for making a hiring decision about the applicant. Give them privacy reassurances.

Ask Them to Be Candid

Say something like "I'm looking for your fully honest assessment here, both positives and negatives, to ensure we make the right hiring decision." Convey you truly value their candor.

Listen More Than You Speak

During the interview, keep your talking to a minimum. The more you listen, the more comfortable the reference will be to open up. Nod, summarize their points and ask follow-ups.

Read Between the Lines

Pay attention to the reference's choice of words, tone, pauses and other subtle cues. Sometimes what they don't say can be just as telling.

Give References a Voice After sharing their thoughts, thank them for their time and insights. Let them know their feedback makes a big difference in your hiring decisions.

Handling Tricky Reference Situations

You may run into some challenges when checking references online. Here's how to navigate them professionally:

If They Try to End the Call Quickly The reference may seem impatient or claim they are too busy. Politely acknowledge this:

"I understand you have a busy schedule. To make this as easy as possible, I just have a few key areas to cover about Former Colleague's performance. Then I'll get out of your hair."

If They Refuse to Give Details Sometimes references try to stay vague or give canned, optimistic responses. Push a bit further:

"I appreciate your positive comments, but I'm also looking for some deeper insights. Could you give me an example of a time when Former Colleague struggled or an area for improvement?"

If You Get a Very Negative Reference Thank them for their honesty and get specifics on the negative feedback. But avoid sounding judgmental:

"I really appreciate you taking the time to give me such a candid evaluation of Former Colleague. Could you give me some additional context around the concerns you raised?"

If Different References Give Conflicting Accounts Realize each reference may have had different experiences with the applicant. Get clarification, but don't take sides.

"Thank you both for your perspectives. I'm hearing two somewhat contrasting views, which is understandable. Perhaps we could dive deeper into the specific situations that led to your assessments..."

Wrapping Up: Leaving Things On a Positive Note When concluding the reference process, be sure to:

  • Thank each reference again for making time to provide feedback.
  • Let them know you value their insights to make the best hiring decision.
  • Leave the door open for any additional thoughts they may want to share.
  • Provide status updates, such as whether or not you ended up hiring the applicant.

With some preparation and the right mindset, conducting effective online references is completely doable. The key is building rapport, asking thoughtful questions, and creating a trusted environment for open dialogue.

By mastering the art of online reference communication, you'll gain a competitive edge in your hiring process. You'll make more confident hiring decisions that lead to better long-term employee retention and success.

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