Real Reference Checks Require These 8 Steps

Oct 30, 2012

A few days ago I received a call from a business owner conducting a reference check on a former co-worker of mine. She kept me on the phone for nearly a half hour to ask me several probing questions about the potential hire. I’ve fielded many reference calls over the years, but none of them were as strong as this one.

The typical call I get lasts five minutes with the reference checker basically saying, “We adore this candidate. You love ‘em, too, right?” They make the call hoping I won’t say anything that will cause concern about the candidate which would throttle their company back to square one of the hiring process.

These actions will help you conduct a real reference check instead of a quick cursory call:

  1. Ask the candidate for additional references you can call. Obtain the names of managers and co-workers beyond who is included on the reference list provided by the candidate. You should have some names to suggest based on the examples the candidate provided you during your interviews. These additional references will increase your chances of getting a legitimate review of the candidate’s work performance instead of a pre-planned endorsement. And if the candidate says, “No, don’t call anybody except for the list I gave you,” then you have a new issue to discuss.
  2. Take responsibility for the reference checks. The hiring manager is best qualified to discuss specifics of the job and have a supervisor-to-supervisor discussion about the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t delegate reference checks to a junior member of your team who is not involved in the candidate’s hiring process.
  3. Clear your schedule … a good reference check requires time to dig into specific details about the candidate. Don’t try to squeeze in two calls between meetings. You’ll be able to check the calls off your to-do list, but you won’t achieve the outcome.
  4. … then clear your mind. Remember that blue flash memory eraser thing from the movie Men In Black? Pretend your pen is one of those, and erase your biases about the candidate before you make each phone call. Erase the attitude that you really, really hope the call goes well. Replace it with skepticism that there are details about the candidate you haven’t uncovered yet and you need to discover them on this call.
  5. Put on your sales hat. Some references you call won’t want to provide meaningful data on the candidate. You’ll have to convince them to be candid. One of my pleas goes something like this: “One manager to another, I want to know if I hire this person, will I be calling you back in six months asking why you didn’t warn me about the train wreck I was inviting into my company?”
  6. Sharpen your pencil. You should take detailed notes during the call. Don’t rely on your memory. Notes will enable you to compare conversations from different references and identify trends.
  7. Prepare a list of questions to ask on the call. Most of your reference-check questions should be aversion-based. Don’t ask only questions that are broad in scope (e.g., Can you tell me about John Smith?). Ask questions about aversions you have uncovered (e.g., Can you give me examples of John reacting to criticism? Any examples of him reacting poorly to criticism?). That being said, two questions I ask on every reference check call are “Why is he/she no longer with your company?” and “You seem to really like this person, but I’m sure they’re not perfect — none of us are. What one area of theirs could be improved?”
  8. React to the data you receive and ask follow-up questions in order to achieve a thorough understanding of the candidate’s work history. Questions such as “Why?” and “Can you give me a specific example?” help you obtain the truth.

Even after reading this list, you still might be hesitant to invest additional time into reference checking. And you might be downright distressed about calling past employers the candidate hasn’t listed as a reference. Here’s an example of when these tactics worked for my company:

A candidate provided us with several business references, each of whom gave positive feedback. A co-worker of mine was an acquaintance of the candidate’s former boss (who wasn’t listed as a reference) and we called to get his perspective. The former boss said the candidate left his company because he was caught stealing and that several co-workers thanked him for firing the man, whose arrogance regularly offended them. “I wouldn’t hire him again if you gave me a million dollars,” said the former boss. I’m sure glad we made that extra call.

Happy hiring!

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