5 Pro Tips for Effective Reference Checks

By Marsha Koelmel

Co-President of Catapult

Reference checks receive mixed reviews. While they have long been a customary last step in the recruitment process, some view them as minimally useful. The most common objection is that the candidate will only give you people who will say something nice about them, so what’s the point? With more than twenty-five years experience recruiting leaders, we have learned a thing or two about the value of checking references and how to do it well:

  1. Conduct a 360-degree reference check x 2: That is, ask for two people that the candidate reported to, two people that were peers and two people that reported to them. Two reasons: First, learning about the candidate from multiple perspectives allows you to ask tailored questions depending on the relationship and may show you differences in how they are viewed. Next, almost anyone can come up with three people to say something nice about them. However, finding six people to provide a reference who fall into the requested categories is much more challenging if you have not made and kept strong professional relationships.
  2. Current or recent relationships only: If the candidate has not worked with the reference in more than 5-7 years, the reference will be minimally useful to you. People change. The exception would be if the relationship has been maintained and the reference can speak to current behaviors and experiences of the candidate. For example, a previous leader who has served as a mentor or a peer that has stayed in touch with the candidate’s career.
  3. Design job-specific questions: “Tell me about Mary” may be a good softball opener but is easily answered with a list of all her wonderful qualities. Take the time to design questions that are directly related to the competencies necessary to be successful in the role and in the culture that the candidate will be joining. For example, if the job requires the ability to influence across lines of business, ask the references for examples of how the candidate has done this successfully in the past. If the culture demands collaboration, find out how they have demonstrated their ability to work collaboratively with colleagues – especially across lines of difference.
  4. Allow for imperfection: Most references will not willingly share the weak spots of the candidate but if you make it clear that you do not expect candidates to be perfect, they may offer some helpful insights. Starting with a statement like “There is no such thing as a perfect candidate. Everyone has areas that they will need to grow into or where they need support from others. Based on how I’ve described the role, what areas do you think Mary may need some support so that she can be successful?”.
  5. What else is there to know?: If you have a good reference who knows the candidate well, they may be willing to share insights that you have not asked about. A final question such as “What else do we need to know about Mary as we consider her for this position?”, “Is there anything I haven’t asked you about Mary that you would like to add?” or “What other insights would you like to share about Mary that will help us to get to know her better?”.

Checking references can be a very valuable data point in the recruitment process. The more practice you have, the easier it will be to distinguish between candidates and the quality of references that they are able to provide.

Rigorous reference checks and candidate assessments are a part of every search we conduct for our clients. If you are interested in learning more about our Executive Search services, please contact us at info@catapultsuccess.com or (716)256-1550.

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