How to Conduct Revealing Reference Checks

The first rule about checking references of job applicants is to check references; don’t forgo reference checks on the assumption that speaking to a reference will automatically be like speaking to the president of your applicant’s fan club. In reality, even enthusiastic references are often surprisingly candid about an applicant’s limitations.

What’s more, reference checks may be the best way to flag professionals who are skilled at winning over hiring managers but can’t recruit good references because they have poor track records. A case in point: I know a mean-spirited scientist who had made it to the final cut for a prestigious job but was apparently so bereft of good character references that he stooped to asking a former girlfriend whom he had jilted in a callous way to serve as his character reference for the job! The former girlfriend understandably denied the scientist’s inappropriate request. And the scientist didn’t land his target job—probably because he couldn’t recruit a sincere character reference.

With all that in mind, here are tips for checking references of applicants for openings on your staff.

  1. Consider requesting from an applicant a reference who has a particular relationship with him. For example, you might ask an applicant for a supervisory position for a reference from someone he previously supervised.
  2. Generate questions for references based on an applicant’s background and the technical and soft skills required by the opening as well as the hardest technical, managerial and interpersonal challenges it will pose.
  3. Don’t cold call references. Instead, set up an appointment to speak with each reference before calling him/her. That way, the reference should have time to prepare thoughtful descriptions of his/her impressions of the applicant and will likely set aside ample time for your conversation
  4. Weed out fake references by calling each reference on his/her employer’s land line.
  5. Take notes during your conversations with references because you may need them later as you compare applicants or explain your hiring decision to your superiors.
  6. Start your conversation with each reference by introducing yourself, identifying your call’s purpose and double checking that this is still a convenient time for the reference to talk.
  7. Describe to each reference the job opening and its demands.
  8. Ask each reference to verify his/her relationship with the applicant and facts provided in the applicant’s interview and resume, such as relevant employment or graduation dates, the applicant’s responsibilities/achievements on associated jobs, and—if appropriate—why the applicant left a previous job.
  9. Ask each reference general questions, such as, “What are some of your overall impressions of the applicant?” and, “Do you think the applicant could excel at our opening?”
  10. Consider explaining why you rate the applicant as a top choice for the opening and asking for feedback on your impressions.
  11. Ask references your prepared questions. But also follow-up on each reference’s response to questions, as appropriate. For example, if a reference says something like, “Jane frequently went the extra mile.” Ask for examples about how Jane did so.
  12. Consider replacing standard, vague questions–such as “What is the applicant’s management style?–with specific questions, such as “How does the applicant reward star producers…resolve conflicts among members of his staff…inspire unmotivated employees…generate comradery on his team…deal with problem employees…run meetings for maximum efficiency…Does the applicant have a strict or laissez-faire supervisory style or does he tailor his supervisory style to the needs of each staffer?”
  13. Encourage each reference to be candid with you and ask him/her how the applicant could have improved in his previous position and how the applicant’s reputation compared to those of his peers.
  14. Conclude conversations with references by asking, “Should I have any reservations about hiring this applicant?” and “Is there anything else I should know about the applicant?”

By Lily Whiteman, author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job”; speaker on career issues; Twitter:@Lilymwhiteman

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