So, you’ve found a caregiver you’re really excited about. They have a great resume, they aced their interview and now it’s time for one of the final steps before you offer them the gig: reference checks.
Checking references may seem like a technicality when a candidate looks great on paper and is wonderful in-person. But it’s important to do your due diligence, no matter how fantastic a potential nanny, sitter, or caregiver seems.
Sara Schaer, the co-founder and CEO of Kango, a child-focused ride-sharing and babysitting app, says reference checks are one of the best ways to fill information gaps that might exist in a candidate’s performance history. They are also a good way to get a feel for how the caregiver really functions in a work environment.
Schaer, along with Kelly Price Noble, program chair of the College of Health Professions and School of Health Services Administration at the University of Phoenix, who has worked in health care for over a decade and mentors and manages caregivers of all kinds, share what you need to know and what you should ask when checking someone’s references.
What makes a good reference?
Good references should be fairly recent, with at least one having worked with the candidate within the past year, so their evaluation of the person’s performance is fresh in their minds. They should be available to speak on the phone, so you have the ability to ask follow-up questions and get as much information as you need. And the candidate should be able to provide more than one reference, so you get a well-rounded view of their skills.
“I’d say [candidates] need to provide at least two to three and have them not be immediate family members,” Schaer says. “You want it to be someone they’ve worked for in a higher capacity.”
Questions to ask: The basics
Once you get a reference on the phone, there are some must-ask questions that will ensure you get every bit of information you need to make the right hiring decision. First, verify that the information the employee gave you about their work history is accurate.
Ask questions like:
How long did this person work for you?
What were their job duties and responsibilities?
How old was the child or person they cared for?
Why did he or she leave?
Were you satisfied with his or her job performance? Why or why not?
Evaluate past performance
Once you’ve verified their employment history, evaluate the specifics of their performance. There are three major areas you should always ask about to get a clear picture of how they behave on the job, recommends Schaer: communication, reliability and consistency. To find out how they measure up in those areas, try asking questions like:
Did you feel like you were always informed of what was going on while they were caring for your loved one?
Were they always reachable while they were working for you?
Were they punctual, and did that continue to be the case the entire time they worked for you?
Does this person work well independently?
Did this person show initiative?
What were some areas in which they could improve?
What was the reason this person gave you for wanting to do this kind of work?
Schaer and Price Noble both also recommend asking about a time when the employee dealt with a difficult situation or emergency at work — an injury, a fall, etc. — and how they handled it.
“Some of our very best providers actually had references describe what happened,” says Schaer. “‘A child fell off the monkey bars and broke his arm, and I immediately was informed of what was going on.’ You [ask this because you] want to understand that this person is cool-headed, that they have expertise… that you know that they’re a competent adult caregiver that doesn’t just lose all ability to be in control of the situation.”
If you’ll need this person to drive your child or loved one somewhere, don’t forget to look into their driving record. (Learn more in the Background Check Guide).
“It’s shocking how many times parents actually have no idea what someone’s driving record is and yet they might be asking a caregiver to drive their own — the parents’ — car and take kids from A to B,” says Schaer. Try asking a question like, ‘Did this person ever drive your child or loved one around? If they didn’t, would you have felt comfortable with him or her doing that?’ That will help you evaluate the employer’s level of trust in their former employee.
Learn more about personality and values
One thing many people forget to assess when checking references is “the fun stuff,” says Price Noble. Who are they outside of work, and how does their personality play into their role as a caregiver? Ask:
What was your child’s or relative’s (whomever was cared for) feedback about this person?
Tell me one of the great things they used to do with your kids or loved one?
Did you get the feeling that this person was enthusiastic and happy about doing this job?
What did this person do to keep the person or people in their care active? (Talk to them, read stories, play music, go for walks, etc. This will help you get an idea of what the day-to-day activities might look like.)
What was your favorite thing about working with this person?
Is there anything we should know as a future potential employer of this person, either personality-wise or compensation-wise or behaviorally?
Questions to avoid
By law, there are certain questions you cannot ask when checking a reference. These are in line with the same kinds of questions that cannot be asked during a job interview and include personal information that could be potentially discriminatory.
“Do not ask about their age,” says Price Noble. “Do not ask about their religion. Do not ask if they have disabilities.”
Equal opportunity employment laws also protect against discrimination based on race, sex, class and pregnancy status, so it’s best not to inquire about those things during the hiring process. Similarly, asking about a person’s salary history is illegal in many places, like California, Delaware, Oregon, Massachusetts, as well as in some cities, including New Orleans, New York City, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Several more cities and states are considering bills to make questions about salary history illegal, too.
What do you do if there’s a bad reference?
Occasionally, you may get a “bad” reference. These are references who barely remember someone, have trouble recalling certain details or give an unexpectedly negative review of the person’s performance.
If the reference barely remembers any details, it’s possible the person worked for them too long ago or exaggerated their role. In these cases, you’ll want to request additional references, says Schaer. If someone can’t provide additional references, that may be a red flag that they’re fabricating their work history or don’t have more recent employers who are willing to refer them.
Similarly, references who only have negative things to say about an employee are a red flag. You can request more references to vet the negative things you heard, and/or move on to another candidate.