Back to News

Making Reference Checks Count

Employers are uneven on the subject of reference checks. Many check references very thoroughly, and even employ outside services. But, I also hear, “why bother – HR will only give name, rank and serial number, and what candidate will give you someone who isn’t just spouting rehearsed answers?”

Here’s a peek at my method:

  • Ask for too many: Ask the candidate to provide 12 references, which must include a boss, a peer (or two), and a subordinate, for each job for the past 15 years. Stellar candidates can provide this list. Mediocre candidates can’t. You won’t call them all, but the candidate no longer can predict WHO you will call.
  • Engage the reference: Start by having them talk about how they know the candidate, were they the supervisor, what was the framework of the relationship.
  • Easy questions first: What was your overall impression? What special skills or talents stand out in your mind?
  • Then the questions they don’t have rehearsed answers for: If you have prepared performance objectives, simply turn them around: “One of the things the employer needs done is [describe]. What experience did [candidate] have in getting this accomplished for you?”, or, “What did [candidate] do to prepare him/her to accomplish this for us?” The reference will not have a rehearsed answer for this, and you will get a clear, candid response. Listen carefully, probe, notice generalities and platitudes. The real opinion will be there.
  • Shortcomings: Ask late in the conversation about areas in which the candidate could have been better, or needed improvement. Probe: “What impact did that have on the work.” Ask how others saw it: “How did your peers feel about this trait in [candidate].” Most of the time, the clarifying questions actually make the candidate seem better, not worse, but it is still worth probing in this area.
  • Close with open-ended question: “What have I not asked you that would be useful for me to know?” Lots of info about what the candidate is like personally will emerge from this question.

Trust the process, and know that you really can get legitimate references, if you use a structured approach, call a broad range of people, and probe for the real answers.