Reference checks are a vital part of the employee selection process. The problem with doing references is they are often mechanical and predictable. So how do you make them valuable? Simply put, ask good questions to as many people as possible.
Here are 2 strategies to improve your odds.
Obviously candidates are not likely to give you the names of people who will say bad things about them. However, if you get the candidate to sign a release, you can expand the pool of people who you can talk to. Think, HR departments, past supervisors, co-workers and colleagues.
Now you may not get much out of them because they really only have to verify dates and pay rates but often times you can get more. If you approach it as a conversation between professionals, you can often soften them up.
From the people you do get to talk to, make an impact by asking probing questions. For example, everyone asks how long have you worked with the candidate? How are they with other people? etc. What you really want to know is if this candidate made a difference.
Get the picture? These questions lead to answers on whether and how a candidate has made an impact. Ultimately that is what you want in an employee.
Perhaps it is a clue if the reference can not name any impacts. While someone may have a good relationship with peers and managers, if the pattern is that people can not name a single impact, perhaps the candidate is just a good people person.
Similarly, if you see a pattern emerge where references are saying the same thing, you know what you are getting in a candidate. Their performance made a similar impact among multiple sources. That speaks volumes about your candidate.
A final word of caution, always document what you find and take everything as a whole. Checking a good job references involves talking with people and you never know the motivation behind what is being said. Take the information as a whole. If a pattern emerges there is probably something there. Especially if it is negative and would disqualify a candidate. Keep accurate good notes, it is good practice and may someday serve to keep you out of legal trouble.