Make Your Reference Checks Count

Most hiring organizations underestimate the amount of information one can obtain from reference checks if you both ask, and listen carefully. You’re looking not just for things that will rule out a candidate but for things that will help you make trade-offs among candidates, or will help ensure that the person you pick will be positioned to succeed within the organization. Though in some cases you might only conduct a reference check on your clear first choice, in other cases it makes sense to gather references for more than one finalist. Information from the reference check may elevate a finalist to “the” candidate and/or help you think from the start about how to support and develop this person appropriately.

Certainly, the reference check can reveal information that causes you to eliminate someone as a candidate. For example, you may find that the candidate has exaggerated information about employment history or education on his or her resume, or has a history of failing to collaborate effectively with coworkers.

Make the Call A Conversation

Establishing trust with each reference is critical for getting answers that go below the surface. The person giving the reference needs to know that you are interested and invested in making sure this is a good fit for the organization and the individual, and are not just looking for “dirt” or a confirmation of what you already know. In order to do so, you need to spend time up front with the reference to introduce yourself and to explain the specific opportunity. Though you’re clearly looking for specific information, you may find that references are more forthcoming when the process feels like a conversation.

Make Multiple Reference Checks

Taking insightful references on prospective employees is essential, but how do you get started? You can either have a third party take references for your candidate, or you can conduct the references internally. Either way, it is helpful to do a number of references – ideally five to six for senior-level candidates – to gather:

  • Hard data – confirmation of the candidate’s track record, skills, and competencies, including information about the role the candidate played within the organization, specific responsibilities, and performance; and
  • Qualitative data – tangible examples that allow you to better understand the candidate’s management and communication style, track record, and both strengths and areas for improvement, including more qualitative questions about the individual’s style, interpersonal interactions, and approach to work.

Your goal in conducting references is to speak with individuals who have known and worked with the candidate, ideally for a long period of time and in different settings. When asking for a reference list, you should suggest that candidates provide references that include peers, direct reports, their own bosses, and/or individuals external to their organizations with whom they worked fairly closely (e.g., a vendor, a client, or a partner in a collaboration). Speaking with this broad list of people should provide a rounded view of how a candidate interacts with people at different levels within and outside the organization.

Ask Follow-Up Questions

Again, if at all possible, avoid questions that elicit a “yes” or “no” response; rather, focus on questions that are open-ended and allow the reference to describe events, accomplishments, and difficulties. Ask for examples and explanations. Listening carefully and drilling down below the surface of initial comments will make a reference truly useful. For example, if someone notes that a candidate was a great manager but didn’t get along well with the CEO, you might ask, “Is that unusual in the organization?”

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It is important to listen not just to the overall comments a reference makes, but also to the specific word choices and the tone and enthusiasm with which the reference describes the candidate. If he or she makes a comment that seems unclear, ask a follow-up question. Keep your antennae up for shifts in tone, long pauses, or hesitations that might indicate that you’ve hit a sensitive or troublesome subject. Acknowledge the shift, be willing to follow up, and, most importantly, probe the source. Also keep an ear out for overly enthusiastic references without sufficient depth of examples to back up the praise.

Legal Requirements

Reference checking has its own set of confidentiality and legal issues. You must always get permission from the candidate before taking references. You should ask them to sign a release giving you permission to check both named and unnamed references, as well as to conduct  background checks. You can not legally start that process until they do.

In addition, your personal notes from a referencing conversation are not to be shared. Instead, write up a summary of each reference check to share with the full search committee. To protect the reference-giver, do not attribute sources of specific quotes or comments, and destroy hand-written notes once the referencing report is written. Note that candidates can request a copy of the reference report and any stored information in their files. And of course, EEOC guidelines on discriminatory questions for interviews apply to reference checks as well.

Many organizations turn to professional third parties for reference checks. Why? Professional recruiters are able to gather information objectively that allows the organization to benchmark the candidate’s skills and personal qualities against the job description. In addition, while candidates generally do not offer references who would not give glowing testimonials, professional recruiters have extensive personal and professional networks that often allow the organization to benefit from references that have not been named by the candidate. Furthermore, as professional recruiters tend to do reference checks much more frequently than others, their expertise and comfort in making reference calls may help get the most out of each one.

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