Are You Doing Reference Checks the Right Way?

Do you ever wish you could skip the reference checks? It just seems so time consuming and you know they are only going to provide you with names of people who are going to say good things. So why bother? Your time is valuable and could be well spent elsewhere, right? Maybe, but you may find that a new approach could make all the difference. This approach can assist in the hiring decision but also with selecting the best management style for the new hire.

Where to start

The first thing;verify the nature of the working relationship between the potential hire and reference. Ideally, you are looking for a supervisor or managerial reference. You should be asking a question like “what was the nature of your working relationship with Susie?” If there is any question whether this person was a supervisor, you should follow-up with a direct question like “Did Susie report directly to you? Or you could ask “Were you responsible for Susie’s performance review?” Knowing the exact relationship here will provide context for the rest of the information you learn from the call.

Options for Reference Check Approaches

From here, there are two basic ways to proceed. You can use directed questions or have a general open-ended conversation. There are pros and cons for each.

Open Ended

The open ended approach can work well because you may learn things about the candidate that never came up in the interview process. This approach can allow for follow-up and clarifying questions too. Just be aware, the reference is going to stay very far away from anything negative. That being the case, you will never learn about any challenges they may have had or any weaknesses.

Directed questions

With directed questions, you get to ask about exactly what you really want to know. This can work well for things like dependability, duties and responsibilities, and soft skills/personality traits. Just make sure your questions are phrased properly to uncover the information you are seeking. “Tell me about Susie’s dependability” is very different from “Was Susie consistently dependable?”

The best approach

The ideal approach may be to ask a few key directed questions, and then follow-up with “What else should I know about Susie that we haven’t already discussed?” Be very attentive, because many times it is not what the reference says, it’s what they didn’t say that you should be keying in on.

Tying up loose ends

If you perform multiple reference checks (and you should) it is very helpful to think about the common themes that shone through. These should be their key personality traits, the tasks they love to perform, and likely their preferred management style. One of the best things I learn through reference checks is how to best manage the new employee to ensure I am getting their best performance and they are appropriately challenged and happy.

Given the potential legal consequences, you know the person on the other end of the phone will choose their words carefully, and focus on the positive. But there are still many ways to ensure you get very useful information out of that 5-10 minute conversation.

Written by Tiffany Appleton, Director, Accounting & Finance Division