OUR RESEARCH PROCESS

We solicited the advice of several leaders in recruiting to provide a guide to gathering useful information from a candidate’s referees.

IF YOU REMEMBER NOTHING ELSE

  1. A reference check is an opportunity to cross-check specific questions/problems that emerged from the candidate’s interview loop.
  2. Candidates will likely provide referees that will speak favorably about them. Your mission is to ask open questions, gather data, and consider all the possible interpretations of what they’re saying.
  3. Aim for the "magic" triplet of a manager, a peer, and (if applicable) someone the candidate managed.

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Interviewing referees usually happens at the hiring stage of the recruiting process since it may disrupt a candidate’s existing work (it can reveal to the referee that they are looking for work).

  • Before this process can take place, the candidate needs to supply referees and the relevant scheduling will need to be completed.
  • Once the references are gathered, the hiring manager/decision maker should use the information to deal with any fine-tuning of the candidate’s role, scope, and environment.
  • Typically, when this process is followed well, you will gather a few small but meaningful pieces of information that helps with both the exact offer to the candidate and to ensure the candidate is successfully on-boarded should they accept.
  • This process is not useful if referees don’t really "know" the candidate/their work well. For example, a colleague who had few chances to work closely with the candidate will likely only be able to offer superficial information.
  • Try to aim for the "magic" triplet of a manager, a peer, and (if applicable) someone whom the candidate managed.
  • Candidates will likely provide referees that will speak favorably about them. Your mission is to ask open questions, gather data, and consider all the possible interpretations of what they’re saying.

Below is a list of common questions to ask during a reference check. NB: Each question (esp. questions 5-10) might require further extrapolation depending on the referee's answer.

  1. Can you verify the job candidate’s employment, job title, pay, and responsibilities? Why did they leave that job?
  2. How do you know the job candidate?
  3. What makes the candidate a good fit for this job?
  4. If you had the opportunity, would you re-hire this job candidate? Why?
  5. What are the candidate’s biggest strengths? Weaknesses?
  6. Did the candidate get along with their co-workers and management?
  7. Tell me what it’s like to work with the job candidate.
  8. What advice can you give me when working with the job candidate?
  9. What else do I need to know about the job candidate that I haven't asked you already?
  10. Who else should I speak to about the candidate that can provide different insight?

During the phone call, listen carefully for any red flags. Take note of who you called, when you called them, and what was discussed. If you sense that the referee is not forthcoming, gently remind them that the purpose of the exercise is to help you establish whether their colleague/friend is going to be happy and successful in a new role and that the referee’s candor is an essential part of that process. When you establish that their colleague/friend's best interests are at stake, chances are that the referee will loosen up.

Remember that a reference check call is also an opportunity to cross-check specific questions/problems that emerged from the candidate’s interview loop (assuming that you can reasonably expect the referee to have something useful to say regarding those problems). For example: “[Hire X] mentioned that they preferred spoken communication over written communication. Did you ever see any impact from this preference?” Apply this technique to the sample questions above: punctuate each question with "How?" or "Can you illustrate with examples?"

Don’t blindly follow this script. It’s designed to be a solid, general place to start. The point of conducting this process live (rather than through an e-mail) is so that you can dig if you start to sense deeper value.

For example, if the referee says the candidate "loves working with other people,” you will want to dig in and ask for concrete examples of the kind of behavior being described. After all, being highly sociable and energetic sounds great, but it could also mean that the candidate has a tendency to invade personal space or become rambunctious at inappropriate times.

Almanac Template | Reference Check Script

In the rare cases that a serious concern emerges, the hiring manager may wish to speak more with the candidate and/or activate other sources of useful information.

For example, it may turn out that a prior colleague identifies that the candidate tends to do their best work when meetings are a rare part of their work (and perhaps pointing to a learning style preference that didn’t emerge during the interview process).

In such a case, if it’s likely that operational and cultural norms of the role would place the candidate in frequent meetings (e.g., a meeting-heavy environment), the hiring manager would be well advised to follow up with the candidate to validate the concern and identify feasible accommodations.