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How to Get Meaningful Insight From Job Reference Checking How to Get Meaningful Insight From Job Reference Checking
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3 Ways to Make Candidate Reference Checks More Valuable

Jo Eisenhart •  August 2, 2016 | Business and Careers

MI24084-JeffIt’s always been a challenge to get meaningful or objective insight from a job candidate’s references. Who’s going to offer up references that would be anything less than glowing? Anybody can come up with three people who would support him or her. And even if a reference might be inclined to say something negative about a person’s performance or character, chances are the person has been coached by his or her company to avoid sharing negative feedback to minimize risk. Often that means reference checks end up netting very little of value beyond “Yes, she worked here from 2011 to 2015.”

All of which begs the question: “Are reference checks valuable?”

Personally, I always contact the references of people I’m considering for a position. And over the years, I’ve learned a few strategies that seem to make reference-check conversations more valuable as a hiring tool.

Investing for You: 5 Critical Questions for a Smart Strategy1. Be specific. When you call a candidate’s references, be focused with your line of questioning. The more specific you can be, the greater the likelihood they’ll share more than the candidate’s name, rank and serial number—and offer honest, relevant perspective. Here are some examples of things that have worked for me:

Instead of asking a candidate’s former manager about how Jackie was as an employee, say, “I’m considering Jackie for a position as assistant director of sales, where her main responsibility will be to do X, Y and Z. Tell me about some examples of what she’s done that would make her a strong candidate for this role.”

Instead of asking about any areas of concern when the candidate worked with the reference, ask about something specific you may have noticed in the interview that causes you to be concerned. For example, I once hired a person who said all the right things in the interview but seemed almost too nice. And I needed to know she could be tough when required. So I asked one of her references about it. He chuckled and said, “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that. She can be tough. I’ve almost got scars from when she’s been tough!”

2. Call on references personally. I would never let someone else talk to references for someone I’m hiring. Sure, a recruiter could ask questions on my behalf and report back to me with the answers. But it’d be difficult for him or her to convey the nuances of the conversation, which can be so telling. Does the reference pause before answering a question? Does it seem like the individual is measuring his or her words carefully? There’s simply no substitute for talking directly to a reference.

3. Put referrals into context. If you want to give consideration to a candidate who’s been referred to you, context is critical. As the head of HR in my company, I get a lot of “This is my next-door neighbor’s daughter. She’s a smart young woman who has a great personality.” That kind of referral may speak to a candidate’s character, which is important (and one of the toughest things to get at in an interview), but does it address her competency?

On the other hand, if a referral came from a respected person within your company, industry or circle of professional friends who’s willing to put his or her name behind a candidate’s qualifications, that says a lot. And in that respect, a referral could be considered a candidate’s first reference. Still, always ask the context within which someone makes a referral. “How do you know Jackie’s work?” or “What causes you to say she’d be a good fit for my team?”

I’m a believer in reference checks. When you can learn firsthand about the skills or character of a candidate you’re considering, you can eliminate some of the risk that comes with making a hire. For reference checks to be meaningful, however, you’ve got to be thoughtful in your approach. Call references personally, and ask questions that are relevant to the position you’re filling or specific to something you want to follow up on after interviewing the candidate. By doing this, references can become a valuable component of your hiring strategy. 

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