You think you’ve found the right candidate to fill your open position and now it’s time to check references. What’s the best way to get the information you need? Should you ask each person the same questions? What do you read—if anything—into the tone of their voice? And how do you overcome the fact that so many companies only allow you to talk to HR and confirm the most basic information?
What the Experts Say
Checking references is often seen as one small piece of the hiring protocol—the final motion to go through before you extend a formal offer to a candidate. But viewing reference checks as a formality is a mistake, according to Priscilla Claman, the president of Career Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm and a contributor to the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job. “You can’t rely on your hunch,” she says. “Even though you’re right 90% of the time, the 10% that you’re wrong”—if, say, a candidate has vastly overstated his qualifications or has other professional skeletons in his closet—“can be very damaging.” Worst-case scenarios aside, reference checking often yields “vital” information about the candidate, says Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a senior adviser at global executive search firm Egon Zehnder and most recently the author of It’s Not the How or the What but the Who: Succeed by Surrounding Yourself with the Best. “Relevant external observers are in a better position to give you an accurate estimate of whether the candidate will be able to perform with regard to the specific circumstances and challenges” of your organization, he says. What’s more, they also provide perspective on the candidate’s “strengths and limitations” so that you can “support the person” once he’s hired. Here are some tips to make the most of reference checks.
The first step in the process is to solicit feedback from all the people in your organization who interviewed the candidate, according to Claman. “Ask them: What are your concerns? What would you like to follow up on? What do you wish you knew more about?” she says. What you learn should form the basis of your questions for the references. After all, she says, the goal with any reference check is to “go beyond simply verifying facts” on a resume. Think, too, about who is best positioned to provide the context and insight you seek, says Fernández-Aráoz. “Work jointly” with the candidate to find the right people from whom to seek information. If, for instance, you want to assess the candidate’s leadership skills, talk to former subordinates; for questions about the candidate’s strategic orientation, talk to former bosses. If you want to measure his influencing skills, talk to peers. “It’s in the candidate’s best interest to work with you on this.”
Set the tone
“Assume that the reference call will take an hour,” says Claman. “It probably won’t take that long,” but the key is not to rush things. At the start of the conversation, you should ask how the reference knows the candidate, to double-check that the person you’re speaking to is in a position to evaluate him. Next, Claman advises complimenting the applicant. “Start from the premise that Nancy is a great candidate and she will make a good employee,” she says. If you display skepticism toward the candidate or hesitate, the reference will likely clam up out of loyalty, she says. It’s also important to set the stage for a “constructive conversation,” says Fernández-Aráoz. Emphasize the value of having a reliable reference. Say that you know, of course, that “no candidate is perfect.” But that it’s useful to “know as much as possible” about the applicant to “confirm whether she has a high chance of success” in the job and so that you can provide “proper integration in the onboarding process.”
Describe the job
Next, says Fernández-Aráoz, you need to be specific about the role you’re trying to fill and its challenges. Begin by saying something like, “We are seriously considering Mary to be a project manager here. She will have to deal with tough deadlines and tight budgets,” he says. Then ask the reference if she has seen Mary perform in similar circumstances. “Ask, ‘What was her exact role and what were her responsibilities? What did she do? How did she do it? And what were the consequences of her actions?’” If the referee has not seen Mary in that context, Claman suggests you alter the line of questioning. Describe what success looks like at your organization and ask how Mary measures up. “Say, ‘To be effective in this role, you need to be able to do XYZ.’ Then, sit back and listen to what the person has to say,” says Claman. Don’t interrupt and “don’t supply the person with the answer you want,” she says.
Ask open-ended, specific questions
Avoid asking broad questions such as, “‘What can you tell me about Mary?’” says Fernández-Aráoz. These questions tend to elicit vague answers that focus on Mary’s “best traits rather than the ones most relevant to the job.” Instead, your goal is to ask a series of open-ended questions. Claman recommends referring to information gleaned from the candidate during the interview process. Say something like, “I understand Nancy helped implement a new payroll system. Can you tell me more about Nancy’s role in that? Or, I understand your department was under a lot of pressure because of the recent merger. Can you give me an example of how Nancy got new employees to work with her?” she says. As the conversation progresses, you can hint at your anxieties and concerns, says Claman. For instance, “Nancy doesn’t have a lot of experience managing people”—how do you think she’ll do as a supervisor?
Stick to the facts
Focus on what the reference is saying rather than how she’s saying it. In other words, don’t read too much into the referee’s tone of voice or inflection, says Fernández-Aráoz. Besides, you don’t know whether the person you’re talking to is humorless, always speaks in a monotone, or is just having a bad day. “The bulk of your judgment should be based on facts,” he says. Claman concurs. “This is not dating; this is work,” she says. “You cannot make emotional decisions.” There are, however, some red flags. It’s a bad sign, for instance, if the job candidate did not inform the referee that you’d be calling. If the referee says something along the lines of, “‘I’m really not the right person to talk about Nancy,’” that, too, does not reflect well on the candidate. In the uncommon event that your understanding differs from what you hear from one or more references, ask the candidate to explain. “You may find that it is nothing to be concerned about,” she says.
Be sure to ask referees about the candidate’s soft skills and social and emotional-intelligence-based capabilities, says Fernández-Aráoz. He recommends asking questions such as, What can you tell me about Mary’s self-awareness and self-regulation? How motivated is she? Does she exhibit empathy? Is she flexible? “There are no right or wrong answers,” he says. But what you learn will help you get a sense for whether the candidate is “a cultural fit” for your organization. “Try to understand the type of culture that this candidate has worked in and her ability to learn and adapt to a new ones,” he says. Some organizations are collaborative, while others are more competitive. Some are long-term oriented; others are more short-term oriented. Fernández-Aráoz recommends ending the conversation with one final question: Is there anything else relevant or useful to know about Mary? “Usually there are positive surprises,” he says.
Find ways in
When speaking to a reference proves challenging—if, say, your organization doesn’t allow managers to contact references directly or you’re being stymied by HR on the other end by getting only a basic conformation of the candidate’s title and dates of employment—consider alternative ways to get the information you need. Claman recommends seeking out informal, “around-the-back-door” references by getting in touch with people in your network who also know the candidate. “Look at professional associations, personal networks, past employees, and LinkedIn to see if there’s any overlap,” she says. “You’re not circumventing HR—you’re supplementing HR.”
Principles to Remember
Gather feedback from all the people who interviewed the candidate and focus on one or two concerns you’d like to check out
Ask specific questions related to the role you’re trying to fill and its challenges. Avoid broad questions such as, “What can you tell me about Susan?”
Listen to what the person is saying and don’t interrupt or supply the answer you want to hear
Show any skepticism or negativity toward the candidate—the reference will go silent out of loyalty
Read anything into the person’s inflection. You don’t have enough context to judge a stranger’s tone of voice
Be stymied by HR policies that disallow reference checks. Seek out other sources of information such as professional associations, past employees, and LinkedIn to see if there’s anyone in your extended network who can enlarge your understanding of the candidate
Case Study #1: Solicit feedback from team members to focus your questions
Brian McClusky, director of human resources at InkHouse, the PR firm based just outside of Boston, MA, views reference checking as the “final step” of the vetting process for new hires. “By the time we talk to references, we are fairly certain that we want to hire the candidate,” he says.
Recently, he had to check references for a candidate—“Richard”—who had applied for a job on the HR team. Before Brian made the calls, he asked everyone on the team who interviewed Richard for their feedback. “I wanted to know if there were any areas of concern,” he says. “Then I would know where to delve deeper in the reference calls.”
The team thought Richard “was a good fit” and that he had strong “technical skills,” but there was one small sticking point. If Richard was hired, he was going to work remotely at least part of the time, and several team members wanted to learn more about Richard’s time management and organizational skills. “Nothing in Richard’s track record suggested that he wouldn’t be able to do it, but there was still a question because he had never done it before,” says Brian.
Brian called two of Richard’s references, his former manager and a former colleague. “Ideally, I always like to talk to people who’ve worked with the candidate in different capacities,” he says. “That way I get perspective on what it’s like to work side-by-side with the candidate and what it’s like to manage him.”
He began by calling Richard’s prior boss. “I introduced myself and told her a little bit about the company and described the job that Richard had applied for,” he says. “I also indicated the part of the time he would be working offsite.”
From there, Brian asked specific, open-ended questions that he thought would shed light on how Richard would perform in the new environment. For instance, he asked for examples of situations when Richard had to meet a tight deadline without direct supervision and times when he had to make independent decisions.
Brian wrapped up both reference calls with his two standard questions: Where do you think the candidate could improve? And, would you hire/like to work with the candidate again?
Both the former manager and peer “were enthusiastic” about Richard’s abilities, which Brian took as a good sign. “It was clear that they valued him very highly.” Richard got the job and he starts at InkHouse next month.
Case Study #2: Think about the role’s priorities and ask for specific examples
Pat Donohue, the HR and operations consultant at XenoPsi, the New York City-based advertising agency, says that checking references allows him to both get a “first-hand understanding” of what makes the candidate tick and helps him “focus on the priorities of the position” for which he’s hiring.
Recently, he checked references for “Jane,” who was interviewing to join his team in a senior role. His first call was to Jane’s former direct supervisor, the COO of her previous company.
When he reached the COO on the phone, he said, “’We are in serious stages of having Jane join us, and I would like to get a professional reference for her. I would appreciate a few minutes of your time.’ My goal was to have him relax and to speak to me as a colleague.”
Pat then described the specifics of what Jane would be doing at XenoPsi. “I said, ‘We are in the process of growing, and I need someone to help us codify best practices and create better internal controls so that we can take our company to the next level of maturity. Can you tell me a story of when Jane did something similar at your organization?’”
Pat says that asking for an example resulted in “a rich story” of how Jane streamlined financial controls at her old organization. “I’ve learned that if you aren’t explicit, usually they just say what a great person she is or that she is a hard worker.”
He also checked references with the president of a company who was one of Jane’s clients. Pat was especially interested to hear more about Jane’s soft skills. “I said that I needed someone who had proven experience and a natural inclination to build lateral networks. I said I was looking for someone who got personal satisfaction from making colleagues successful.”
In turn, Pat heard a story about how Jane “took it upon herself to help other departments” for this client. He also told Pat that Jane had formed strong relationships throughout the organization.
Pat hired Jane and considers her a successful hire.
Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University. Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.