Think references are a waste of time? Think again!


So often I hear clients tell me that they don’t want to bother with referencing because ‘after all, who is going to provide a name of someone who won’t give a good reference?‘ or ‘references never tell me anything valuable anyway.’

If you feel that way, you probably are not going about referencing in the right way. Think of referencing as an interview. Think of the time you spend obtaining the reference as another part of the interview process — but one where you are ‘interviewing‘ the reference to learn more about the candidate.

I’ve been asked to provide a reference for former direct reports a number of times. Seldom was the reference conducted well or were the right questions asked. It was more of a ‘check the box‘ exercise so that the company conducting the reference or the HR rep conducting the reference could say that it had been done.

How to conduct meaningful references?

  1. Don’t simply ask the candidate to provide references, call them and be done with them. Look over the resume, review your notes from the interviews, understand which companies you want to speak with and which people within those companies specifically you want to contact. Don’t be afraid to ask the candidate for the references you want. In this way, you will get a more accurate picture of the candidate and the people with whom s/he worked.
  2. Don’t ask meaningless questions or close-ended questions where the referee can just say yes or no? You want to start a dialogue with the referee and get him talking about the candidate.
  3. Make sure you are paying attention and ask follow-up questions to statements the referee makes. ‘Tell me more‘, ‘can you please provide an example?‘ or ‘what do you mean by that?‘ are all designed to get the referee to provide more detail. In a recent reference I was asked to provide for a former direct report, the person conducting the reference asked how the candidate’s performance was. Actually, the exact question was ‘Was Mary’s performance good?‘ My response? ‘For the most part.‘ Then the person moved on to the next question. Really? How about a follow up question — ‘you said her performance was good ‘for the most part’, tell me about a time when her performance was not up to par.
  4. I never ever ask about weaknesses. First of all, I want to focus on an individual’s strengths, shore those up and spend time refining those. Rather than ‘weaknesses’ I prefer to ask about areas of continued development that we might want to focus on to ensure this candidate can realize their potential when they join the company.
  5. And finally, take the time to review the job description. Craft your reference questions directly from that job description — the responsibilities and the qualifications. Never, ever use a ‘standard’ set of questions for all positions.

Now it would be hard for me to tell you which questions to ask — because they should be specific to the role. However, some more ‘generic’ questions that I incorporate into all of my professional referencing (around the more specific ones I would craft for each role) include:

  • What is/was your relationship to candidate and how long have you known him/her?
  • If you are confirming title and dates of employment, you can ask that up front as well (I use another company to conduct credit, criminal, education and employment verification).
  • What were candidate’s primary responsibilities in his/her role and how well were they carried out?
  • Tell me about a time candidate excelled in her role or went above and beyond what was asked of her.
  • Describe for me a time when candidate fell short of expectations. Why do you think that was and what did he to remedy the situation?
  • How would you describe candidate’s communications skills (oral, written, presentation)? What examples can you provide?
  • How would you describe candidate’s interpersonal skills? How well did s/he get along with boss? Peers? Direct reports? Subordinates? Clients?
  • Off the top of your head, what are candidate’s top strengths?
  • What are areas of continued development for candidate OR On what areas of develop could we focus to ensure candidate excels in this role?
  • Hiring practices aside, would you want to work with candidate again? Why or why not?

My belief is that the more time and effort you put into the recruiting process — including sourcing the best candidates, interviewing, testing and referencing — the more you get out of it. While the interviews and any case studies or psychometric profiling are undoubtedly the largest part of the interviewing process, professional referencing is a key component and should be fully incorporated into your hiring practices. If you are going to do it, do it well and make it count!

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