8 min read

Reference Checking for Remote Employees

Hiring is always a bit of a gamble, isn't it? You review resumes, conduct interviews, maybe give an assignment...but at the end of the day, you're still making an educated guess about whether this person will be a valuable addition to the team.

When you're hiring someone who will be working remotely, that gamble gets even riskier. You don't have the opportunity to observe them in the office environment. Will they have the self-discipline to stay on task? The communication skills to compensate for lack of in-person interaction? The problem-solving abilities to navigate tech issues on their own?

That's why reference checks are absolutely crucial when bringing on remote staff. A glowing review from a previous manager or colleague can provide unique insights and help confirm whether a candidate has what it takes to thrive as a telecommuter.

Still not convinced reference checks are worth the effort? According to a shocking study, a whopping 78% of applicants have admitted to fibbing on their resumes. From inflating past achievements to fudging dates of employment, many candidates will bend the truth in hopes of getting hired.

As the old saying goes, "Trust, but verify." Reference checks allow you to verify key details about a candidate's skills, experience, and work ethic from an objective third-party source. When done properly, they can reveal major red flags about an applicant that you might have otherwise missed.

So let's dive into why reference checking is so important for remote hires, who you should be contacting, what questions to ask, and tips for reading between the lines like a savvy hiring pro.

Why Reference Checks Matter More for Remote Workers

We've already touched on the key reason reference checks carry extra weight when hiring remote employees: you can't directly observe their work habits and capabilities in an office setting. But there are a few other major factors that make thorough reference checks absolutely essential:

  1. Remote work requires independence and self-motivation: You need assurance a candidate can stay productive without constant supervision. A previous manager is a great source for insight into a candidate's ability to manage their own time and workload.
  2. Communication is everything: With less opportunity for in-person interaction, strong written and verbal communication skills are non-negotiable for remote workers. Speaking to references can reveal strengths and weaknesses in this crucial area.
  3. Tech skills are paramount: A remote worker has to be comfortable navigating various online tools, platforms, and collaborative software. References can validate claims about technical proficiency.
  4. Cultural fit is harder to gauge: With remote employees, you don't have the same windows into observing how they navigate the workplace Culture. References can speak to whether a candidate's personality and values mesh with your company.
  5. No water cooler talk: In a traditional office, you'd have casual opportunities to gather input about a new hire from other employees. With remote staff, all you have to go on is their interview performance and references.

As you can see, references play an outsized role in assessing whether a remote candidate will truly be a successful fit. Moving forward without this crucial due diligence would be like buying a car without ever test driving it. Don't skip this critical step!

Who You Should Contact for References

When checking references for remote candidates, there are a few key people you'll want to hear from:

  • Their most recent manager(s)
  • Colleagues or peers they worked with closely
  • Employees who reported to them (if the role was a supervisory position)
  • In some cases, customers or clients they interfaced with

The goal is to gather a well-rounded perspective on the candidate's strengths, weaknesses, work style, and disposition from multiple angles. Speaking only to former managers may not give you the full picture.

Pro tip: Always verify that the people you're speaking to actually had a legitimate working relationship with the candidate during the time period specified. It's disturbingly common for applicants to try passing off friends or family as "former colleagues" to secure favorable references. If something seems fishy, dig deeper or disqualify that reference.

What Questions to Ask When Checking References

While reference interviews shouldn't feel like an interrogation, you'll want to ask focused questions to gather meaningful insights. Here are some examples of what to include:

Questions About Work Quality/Ethic:

  • What were X's core responsibilities in their role?
  • How would you describe the quality of their work output?
  • What were their strengths and weaknesses in this position?
  • Did they consistently meet deadlines?
  • How did they handle work setbacks or stressful situations?

Questions About Communication Style:

  • How would you describe X's written and verbal communication abilities?
  • Were they an effective communicator in meetings and when collaborating remotely?
  • How did they handle miscommunications or disagreements?

Questions About Technical Skills:

  • What specific software, tools or platforms was X responsible for using?
  • How technically savvy did you find them to be?
  • Did they have any issues learning new systems or technologies?

Questions About Work Habits and Management:

  • How did X manage their own time and workload?
  • If applicable: How did X do leading a team remotely?
  • What did X's typical day or work schedule look like?
  • Were they easily accessible and responsive when needed?

In addition to these targeted queries, you'll also want to leave room for open-ended questions that can surface additional insights:

  • How would you describe X's strengths and weaknesses as an employee?
  • Would you rehire X for a similar remote role? Why or why not?
  • Is there anything else I should know about X's work performance or style?

The key is listening carefully for specific examples or anecdotes that either reinforce or raise doubts about a candidate being a good fit for remote work.

Reading Between the Lines

Remember, most managers are naturally hesitant to provide overly negative feedback about former employees for legal reasons. They may couch comments more diplomatically. It's up to you to read between the lines and listen for subtle red flags like:

  • Comments like "X did a fine job most of the time..." or "They were punctual generally..." which imply there were lapses.
  • Noticeable pauses or hesitation before answering questions about strengths/weaknesses.
  • Speaking more about work processes than actually assessing the employee's performance.
  • Using qualifiers like "when given clear direction" or "with reminders" when describing positive traits.
  • A general lack of enthusiasm or lukewarm sentiments about rehiring the candidate.

If you pick up on a negative undercurrent, dig deeper in a respectful manner. Ask for specific examples that demonstrate areas of concern.

On the flip side, be aware that some managers may give an artificially glowing review in hopes of passing along a problematic employee to someone else. Extra skepticism is warranted if everything sounds too good to be true.

The Bottom Line on Reference Checks for Remote Staff

In today's increasingly remote workforce, proper reference checking is more crucial for employers than ever before. After all, you're entrusting employees you may never meet in person with representing your brand and delivering quality work for your clients.

Investing the time to have substantive reference conversations can reveal key insights about whether a remote candidate truly has the right skills, temperament, and work ethic to thrive in that environment. It's a critical step that shouldn't be skipped or skimped on.

So next time you're hiring for a remote role and a candidate seems like a perfect fit on paper, don't stop there. Pick up the phone and hear it straight from the people who know them best. With the right approach to reference checking, you can minimize costly hiring misses and build a rockstar team of productive telecommuters.

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