Here’s How Reference Checking Can Reduce Turnover

When you're trying to reduce turnover, past behaviours help to predict future performance. Your candidates’ references can be a helpful window into the past.

If you’ve made it to the reference checking stage, your candidate must be looking pretty darn good. They’ve matched up well to your job profile, addressed any gaps with examples of past behaviour in the interview, and their responses to your questions have outshone their competition’s. Now all you have to do is check the box that you’ve spoken to their references and you’re good to go, right?


If you’re serious about reducing turnover, you better make sure that what your candidate told you matches with what other people say about them. Yes, your candidate is going to carefully select who they provide as a reference, but it’s up to you to ask the right questions, confirm that the reference isn’t just a friend, and get as much insight as you can out of the conversation.

It’s always preferable to speak to a previous manager or supervisor, but that might not always be possible. Regardless of who you’re talking to, you can still ask questions that confirm or contradict what your candidate has been saying. And the best part? You don’t have to do any extra work to develop them! All you have to do is take the questions that you asked in the interview, and switch the perspective. Instead of asking “Tell me about a time when you did x,” you ask “Tell me about a time when candidate did x.” Easy as that. This works to either verify or poke holes in the responses that your candidate provided.

Julie Brush, founder of The Lawyer Whisperer, illustrated a 4-step process in that covers how to get the most out of your reference checks:

  1. What are the most important qualities (substantive, experience, cultural) a candidate must possess in order for you to hire him/her for this position?
  2. What have you learned about this candidate to date? How does he or she stack up in the areas above? Are there any concerns? If so, what are they? Is there still information you want/need to know about this candidate?
  3. What are your goals for the reference call? What do you want to learn, understand, validate? Be specific.
  4. What questions are you going to ask in order to achieve your goals?

As you can see, Julie suggests looking back on many of the things you’ll have already done before the interview. But she also encourages readers to re-examine what they’ve learned about candidates up to this point. Is there anything that’s still missing, any unanswered questions that you need closed up before you can make a hiring decision? Make sure you’re ready to follow these steps before calling up your candidates’ references, and remember that much of this information is already at your fingertips.

It can certainly be disheartening when a candidate’s story and their references’ stories don’t line up. But it’s better to hear about it now than to see it in action within a few months on the job. All the work you’ve been doing to reduce turnover has been pre-hire stuff, designed to help improve the prediction of on-the-job success. In other words, these strategies are meant to help predict what will happen once a candidate is actually in the role. Like we’ve said before, past behaviour is an extremely strong indicator of future performance – but if the examples explored in the interview are invalid, then that predictive power disappears. That’s what a thorough reference-checking conversation can prevent.

Pro Tip: Trying to come up with effective interview questions? Here’s how behaviour-based interview questions can provide better insights and help reduce turnover.

Of course, you’re probably not always going to experience the worst-case scenario. Instead of discovering that your candidate is blatantly lying, it may just be that their manager has a different perspective on the situation. In everyday work events, you’ve likely seen how different perspectives can greatly affect the story being told. People are inherently subjective, and the most effective methods to reduce subjectivity are by looking at real data or obtaining input from multiple stakeholders. I doubt your candidate’s previous employer is going to share performance data with you, so their viewpoint is the next best thing. That way, you’re able to take both versions of the story, identify where it differs, and decide on your own whether those differences are important or negligible.

In scenarios where a reference’s version of events lines up strongly with the candidate’s version, then you can be that much more certain that they’ll perform as expected. The more reinforcement of your prediction that you can get, the more certain you can be that the candidate will display similar behaviour on the job. The more accurate that prediction, the more likely it is that you’re making the right hiring decision. And the more accurate the hiring decision – the more you reduce turnover.

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There’s no singular strategy to reduce turnover. There are, however, many pieces of the hiring process that can be improved to help with turnover reduction, and reference checking is a big one. Instead of looking at it as a box to tick, consider it an opportunity to obtain more information that you can use to make a better hiring decision. And while I know that this isn’t the most exciting step in the process, it can have a significant impact on your ability to retain employees. Past behaviours help to predict future performance, and your candidates’ references can be a helpful window into the past.

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