Hiring a Track Record: More Informative Reference Checks

Laura Gassner Otting
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Interviews are not indicative of reality, ever. Questions are asked, questions are answered, and everyone laughs and smiles. It’s not exactly a typical crisis day in the office. The only way to get a true read on a candidate is to speak with the people who know him or her best: his references.

A bad hire can ruin morale, chase away valued employees and cost thousands of dollars to replace. Worse yet, the termination process takes months and can open your organization up to limitless liability. The few extra hours spent checking references greatly reduce the risk involved.


Most candidates’ reference lists are chock full of the people ready to sing their praises. Sure, it’s important to check these references, but you can already guess what you are going to hear. Far more telling are references from the supervisors, peers and subordinates who aren’t on the prepared list and for this very reason, the reference checking process begins during the first interview.

Ask probing questions as your candidate describes projects that went well (and not so well). Ask for the names of individuals with whom s/he worked and keep careful notes. You will want to call these people before you seal the deal.

Make sure that your candidate understands the point at which you will go off his or her reference list. This is usual done by asking them if there is anyone you cannot talk to about them, and it is often done after a final interview but before an offer is made. Not doing so compromises confidences and will most likely send a jittery candidate leaping out of the candidate pool.

Yadda, Yadda, Yadda

Get the reference talking by asking how long and in what capacity they have known the candidate. Ask them about specific projects that the candidate discussed. Delve early into strengths and successes. Explain that the references will be kept confidential, as well as your desire to hear stories rather than just character traits, at the start of the call.

Loosen a reference’s tongue further by keeping the discussion
conversational. If a reference senses an interrogation is in the offing, s/he will tighten up and not share as much as s/he might have otherwise. The stories the reference tells are as important as the tone of voice used to tell them. The calmer the reference, the more information you can gather.


Reference peers, subordinates and superiors; every level of an
organization sees your candidate from a different perspective and can add dimension to your pre-hire
knowledge. But, keep in mind that references may often act as funhouse mirrors, sometimes inaccurately reflecting a candidate’s performance or experience from the slant of the person with whom you are checking. Double check the veracity of any reference revealing information that seems completely contrary to the rest; you’ve either uncovered a nasty hidden truth or found a glaringly obvious personal grudge.

Questions to ask during a reference check:

  1. How long and in what capacity have you know the candidate?
  2. What would the candidate’s critics say about him/her?
  3. Describe the candidate’s management style.
  4. Tell me about a time when the candidate successfully changed your mind.
  5. What advice would you give his/her next employer/board/employees?
  6. Describe a mistake the candidate made and how s/he corrected the situation.
  7. Would you hire him/her again?
  8. Who else should I talk to about the candidate?
  9. Is there any question that I didn’t ask, that if I had you would have answered, but since I hadn’t you kept to yourself?
  10. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you would like the search committee/hiring manager to know about?