Reference Checks: Power Tool or Check-the-Box? 

Reference Checks Power Tool or Check-the-Box? Hiring Best Practices

Before hiring, the selection process – or pre-hire steps – is a time to collect as much information about a candidate as possible to reduce hiring risk.  Collecting data is usually done through interviews and assessments combined with other background checks, including references.  This traditional step can either yield unique insights about a candidate or just be validation of other information already known.

The short answer?  It depends on how they are conducted and with whom.

Reference checks help get at the harder-to-validate aspect of a candidate’s story.  It has been said that while the “hard” skills (job-specific) get you in the door, it is the lack of “soft” skills (competencies) that push you out the door.  Reference checks can help uncover in advance the stuff that eventually grows tiresome to manage or simply hinders success.

Before we go further, know that the ease of access to this information will vary according to the size of a previous employer.  Larger companies tend to shield their managers from reference inquiries and set up automated phone lines to verify employment dates only.  Because big companies can equal big problems, they do this to protect from seepage of daily productivity and to mitigate legal risks associated with giving references based on subjective opinions vs. objective facts.

But the employment universe is filled with far more smaller organizations than large, so chances are good that a hiring manager can get some good intel on their top candidates(s).  When comfortable, past supervisors can easily tell you what you need to know.  Here are some basic guidelines for making your reference checks a hiring power tool:

Plan for what you need: Remember, you are looking for that which is hard to see, so make a short list of what is truly important to being successful in the role.  The same list of key behaviors used in your behavior-based interviews can work here too.  No matter how awesome they appear, all candidates have risk.  If your front-runner’s candidacy has a red-flag, use the reference check to ask about that.

Target past supervisors, not peers: Insist that candidates provide names of only those who have formally evaluated past work.  If they are in short supply, next-best will be supervisors who have relied upon a candidate’s work in volunteer organizations, but only if commenting from a long-standing relationship (vs. a 1-day event).  Peer evaluations – no matter how glowing – simply will not be objective, and therefore likely inaccurate.  Don’t bother.

Establish rapport:  When speaking with a reference, your call will likely come when it is not expected.  Ask if the reference has time for a brief conversation and offer to schedule a time if the moment is not good.  Being respectful, warm and friendly will help the reference to loosen up and disclose helpful info.

Start with softball questions:  To get the reference relaxed and talking, start with verification questions that can be answered in one or two words: dates of employment, title and the last salary or hourly rate.  Verification means that you provide the numbers for them to react to.  Some managers may not have this information at their fingertips, so you may get responses like, “That sounds about right.”  You’ll need to decide if that is good enough given that you’ll be pressing a bit more later in the conversation.

Move to open-ended questions: With the basics out of the way and the manager warmed up, move now to light, open-ended questions.  These require a bit more explanation, but are still fairly easy to answer.  Ask now for a short description of the candidate’s past role, if there were any promotions or increased responsibility, and the reason for leaving.

Finish with the powerball questions: Keeping the conversation succinct and moving forward, ask about the key stuff that really matters to you, your company or the job.  Stay with the open-ended; “How punctual was Joe?” is better than “Was Joe punctual?”  Being mindful of not taking up too much of your reference’s time, draw from your previous planning about the big stuff: working relationships with peers, quality of work, organizational skills, judgment, problem solving, teamwork, leadership, tenacity or whatever else you feel needs to be explored.  Be sure to ask about overall quality of work.

To get to the deepest, most hidden aspects of your candidate’s story, avoid a direct question such as “What were Joe’s weaknesses?”  Instead, try a more subtle approach such as, “If Joe is hired by our company, we would set up a skills development plan right away to help ensure his success.  What 2-3 skills or attributes would you suggest be on that plan to help him improve and succeed going forward?”

Conclude the reference check with two more questions:  “Is there anything else that you feel I should know about Joe or his performance?”  This catch-all question is not to be missed and can often bring forth previously unaddressed details.  And then finish with the hardest-hitting question of all:  “Would you hire Joe again?”  This is a direct, head-on version of the usual “Is Joe eligible for rehire?” that often gets asked up front yielding a check-the-box, “yes.”  If the answer is “yes,” immediately follow up and re-confirm, “You would?”  The manager will likely repeat his initial statement with added conviction.  If there is a silence or hesitancy, gently urge the manager to disclose “Important information I need to know.”  Immediately address any discrepancy with previous answers.

A reference check is a short, well-executed interview of a candidate’s past supervisor.  To make it more than a rubber-stamp, take a planned approach with your best interpersonal skills to gain the most information.  When used as part of an overall selection process, you will reduce risk and hire with the most confidence.