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How to conduct effective reference checks

Thorough reference checks are crucial for high-stakes and senior-level hires. The primary goal of checking references is to answer two questions:

  1. Can the candidate do the job? Hear what others say the candidate's abilities are, rather than just relying on what the candidate says.

  2. Is this candidate a danger to the company? Is there anything in this candidate's history that might be a cause of concern?

Suggested reference questions

  • What are this candidate's greatest strengths?

  • What is this candidate less good at, and how did they compensate for it within their role?

  • What areas would you recommend for development for this person?

  • In what areas did you provide the candidate with guidance and help?

  • What was this person's greatest contribution or impact to your firm?

  • What did you hire the candidate for, and how was it accomplished?

  • Would you hire this candidate again?

  • What advice would you give this person's new boss on managing the candidate?

  • How would you rank this person with others who have worked for you in the past?

  • Can you give me an example of how this person demonstrated [leadership, adaptability, integrity, etc.]?

  • What's the one thing you would change about this person?

  • How can we assure that this person will be successful in this new role?

  • What hesitations or concerns do you have about this candidate in this new role?

  • Is there anything you'd add that I haven't asked about, or is there anything I should know that I haven't specifically asked you about?

  • Who else should we talk to?

Best practices for effective reference checks

  • Make it conversational. Introduce yourself and try to find common ground with this person. The more relaxed the reference feels with you, the more likely they will be to reveal information beyond scripted responses.

  • Take as much time as you need. If you run out of time, schedule additional time to speak.

  • Ask open-ended questions and listen carefully. Avoid interrupting, and when possible, let the reference fill in gaps of silence. In our experience, this is often where you may learn the most.

  • Give recent references more weight than older ones.

  • Who you contact may be more important than the questions you ask. The best references are supervisors, peers, subordinates, or clients (when appropriate) who can share direct insights on the candidate's capabilities.

  • Don't rely on personal references. Friends and relatives can almost never add insight into the candidate's work capabilities and habits.

  • Listen for subtleties. Most references are likely to speak positively of the candidate, especially since the candidate provided this person as a reference. What you are looking for is that extra enthusiasm that demonstrates exceptionality (e.g., "He was a great asset on our team" versus "Out of a team of 12 sales managers, he was by far the best! I'd hire him again in a heartbeat.")

  • Don't overlook subordinates. They are most likely to know intimately whether the candidate can pull his or her weight. Subordinates can also shed light on candidates' managerial style and the culture they will likely bring to your company.

Who should conduct the reference calls?

For executive-level hires, we recommend against outsourcing reference checks. The hiring manager should personally speak with the candidate's references, as they are in the best position to hone in on answers that appear vague or questionable. The hiring manager also knows the job well enough to be able to ask follow-up questions specific to the position that may not occur to others who aren't as close to the role.

In addition, references are more likely to speak candidly with the hiring manager than with someone to whom the reference check was delegated to as a check-the-box.

How many references should be checked?

As many as it takes to get a consistent story. A holistic reference check will be the 360-degree type, including the candidate's direct supervisor, peers, subordinates, and if relevant and appropriate, clients.


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