Reference Checking | The HBS Blog | Business Strategies

By Matt Cholerton Tuesday, September 18, 2012

You’ve found a great candidate and are ready to hire. Is it worthwhile to check references? Unfortunately, the answer is yes! It is a necessary evil, with a compelling purpose and if done well can protect the company and foster a healthy and productive employee relationship. Let’s dig in.

During the interview process, ask the candidate if you can call their references. Then, ask them what type of reference their former boss will give?  “What will they say when I ask them about the way you accept direction and feedback?” “What do you think they’ll say about your organizational skills and ability to make deadlines?”  This can force a bit of honest communication. Steve Penny, in his book Hiring the best People calls this the Truth Test. It can reveal useful information in the interview process, but also sets you up for a productive reference discussion.

Ensure the references you are talking to have worked directly with the candidate, and that they are familiar with their work. Dig in to clarify the working relationship.  If you aren’t satisfied ask the candidate to provide someone else.

Frankly, by the time we’re at the reference stage, everyone already likes the person. They want to hire them.  Therefore, the purpose of the reference process should be to;

Determine flags - Of course, if a reference speaks negatively or hesitates to address certain issues, warning bells should go off.  It’s also a flag if the references don’t make time to return your call in a timely manner.

Reconnaissance - Learn how the employee works best, where they might need assistance, and what management styles that work best for them. Use it as a tool to integrate and best manage your new hire.

There are 1000’s of questions available on-line, but here is a sample of questions I like and why:

What was your relationship to the candidate? Is this the right person to talk to? Were they in a position to see the output and quality of the candidate? Can they accurately assess how they got along with others?

What were the responsibilities in their last job? Is it similar to what the candidate told you? Does it prepare them for the role at your organization?

Tell the reference about the duties of the new job. Ask if the applicant will be able to perform those duties and which part of the job they might have the most trouble?

Is this person a team player or does he or she excel by working alone? Sometimes, independence is good. Regardless, this question can help elicit information that can be helpful in assigning work or assessing team fit. Regardless of the answer, probe to see how the reference got their opinions of the candidate.

What areas of development were communicated to the candidate and how did he or she respond? Was the candidate aware of their weaknesses and what did they do about it? This question is a good way to get information regarding performance weaknesses but also can give you things to focus on as the employee starts.

Please describe your management style. Learning from someone who has managed the employee can give you clues to help transition them smoothly and make them more effective and engaged. You might learn they are truly rewarded by public acknowledgement, value a hands-off approach with a weekly check-in, or respond well to direct feedback with idea for improvement, for example.

Can you tell me about the candidate’s work style? What was working with her like?

Build a list of questions to use for all your reference checks - you will get comfortable with the questions and get better at probing for useful information. Being the same questions across multiple checks will also give some perspective to the answers. Share relevant notes as appropriate on your team.

Do you do reference checks? Have you ever decided not to hire based on a call? What is your favorite question?

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