How to Make the Most out of Reference Checks

by Susan Mullin

Reference checks can be challenging—TorchLight’s Chief Culture Officer Julie Lowe explains how to dig in and get the information you need.

“Do reference checks really matter? I’ve never gotten a bad reference…”

If potential candidates select their references wisely, they are almost always exclusively positive. While this is great for job seekers, it can be difficult to get objective feedback to determine whether someone is a fit for your position. Despite this challenge, there are ways you can get the information you need to accurately assess a candidate.

To get the most out of reference checks, here are several key areas to consider:

Who is the reference?

Did the candidate list a friend/peer, family member, teacher or former supervisor who knows their work experience?  This makes a huge difference in the content of the questions and answers.  Rule of thumb = try to get 3 former supervisors (some junior candidates may not have ‘real’ references so you may need to get creative).  Once you have the reference, you can validate the quality of the reference. Did they hire them? Did they give performance reviews? How long did they manage them? Did they delegate work and measure performance? If not, ask for a different reference.

Note:  If they can’t provide contact information for a former supervisor, probe the candidate to better understand the reasons. If the reference won’t respond to your contact, also ask the candidate to explain. The reference may not understand or even be aware that their name was given to support their candidacy. Situations like this could raise questions about a candidate’s capabilities and judgement.

Establish a rapport with the reference

Don’t launch right into your list of questions. Build rapport as you talk about who you are, what the next few minutes will look like and how long they have known the candidate. If they feel comfortable with you, they will share more information.

Set the stage for the call

Share the type of role the person is interviewing for and the culture of the team/organization.  Ask them how they think they would do in that setting.

“Yes or no” isn’t enough

Answers like “yes” or “no” don’t provide enough detail to answer most reference questions. Ask open-ended questions. If the reference’s answers are short, try to understand why that’s the case. If you need to better understand a situation, ask the reference for an example to clarify.

Don’t be afraid to be creative

Even if you are using a standard reference check form, you may need to think outside the box. If you hear hesitation, long pauses or sighs during your reference call, simply say, “Can you expand on that?” or “I hear a bit of hesitation in your voice, would you mind elaborating on that?” If there are areas where you may have questions about a candidate based on the interview or other concerns, take the opportunity to craft a question and see how they behaved in the past.

Example:  Let’s say the candidate has all the technical skills but comes across as a bit reserved.  Craft a question or scenario about interpersonal interaction amongst the team they previously worked with.

Ask for advice

Approach them manager to manager:  “What advice do you have for me as a potential future manager based on your experience working with them?” This type of question enables you to solicit guidance on how to best manage to the candidate’s strengths and developmental areas and most references are happy to elaborate in that context. And it’s really helpful if you do end up making the hire!

Bottom line, references can help solidify your excitement about a candidate or give you pause to think a little harder about your decision. To make the most out of reference checks, be sure you are contacting the right people and don’t be afraid to break outside of the standard reference form. To really dig in and get the most relevant feedback, sometimes you need to get creative and be flexible. It’s well worth the effort to make sure you have the best person for the job. Best of luck!

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Posted in , Hiring Managers