Your hiring process should look something like the photo to the left, with two additional steps – assessment before the interview (to provide feedback to deepen your interview), and reference checks between the interview and offer.
Hiring decisions should take into consideration the insights gleaned from each step of your hiring process, all the way to how the candidate treats the receptionist.
Remember, the pre-hire process is the one time you can say yes or no to bringing someone into the company. Once hired, the candidate is yours and it’s then your responsibility to put the time and energy into helping them succeed.
I talk a lot about the assessment process (it’s my sweet spot, after all), but it’s come to my attention that meaningful insights on reference checks can be difficult to come by, and many times because of that, they are overlooked or given less credit than they deserve.
Here’s an excerpt from a Harvard Business Review article with tips on how to conduct reference checks.
How to make the most of reference checks:
1. Seek input
The first step in the process is to solicit feedback from all the people in your organization who interviewed the candidate. Ask:
- What are your concerns?
- What would you like to follow up on?
- What do you wish you knew more about?
Their responses should form your questions for the references. After all, the goal with any reference check is to go beyond simply verifying facts on a resume. Think, too, about who is best positioned to provide the context and insight you seek. Work jointly with the candidate to find the right people from whom to seek information.
- If, for instance, you want to assess the candidate’s leadership skills, talk to former subordinates.
- For questions about the candidate’s strategic orientation, talk to former bosses.
- If you want to measure his influencing skills, talk to peers.It’s in the candidate’s best interest to work with you on providing these references.
2. Set the tone
Assume that the reference call will take an hour. It may not take that long, but the key is not to rush things.
- At the start of the conversation, ask how the reference knows the candidate, to double-check that the person you’re speaking to is in a position to evaluate him.
- Next, compliment the applicant. Start from the premise that Mary is a great candidate and she will make a good employee. If you hesitate or display skepticism toward the candidate, the reference will likely clam up out of loyalty.
- Emphasize the value of having a reliable reference. Tell the reference that you know that no candidate is perfect, but it’s useful to know as much as possible to confirm whether or not the applicant has a high chance of success in the job. Explain that information from the reference can also ensure proper integration in the onboarding process.
3. Describe the job
Next, be specific about the role you’re trying to fill and its challenges.
- Begin by saying something like: “We are seriously considering Mary to be a project manager here. She will have to deal with tough deadlines and tight budgets.”
- Ask the reference if she has seen Mary perform in similar circumstances.
- Ask, “What was her exact role and what were her responsibilities? What did she do? How did she do it? And what were the consequences of her actions?”
If the referee has not seen Mary in that context, you should alter the line of questioning:
- Describe what success looks like at your organization and ask how Mary measures up.
- Say, “To be effective in this role, you need to be able to do XYZ.” Then sit back and listen to what the person has to say.
Don’t interrupt and don’t supply the person with the answer you want.
4. Ask open-ended, specific questions
Avoid asking broad questions such as, “What can you tell me about Mary?”
These questions tend to elicit vague answers that focus on Mary’s best traits rather than the ones most relevant to the job. Instead, your goal is to ask a series of open-ended questions. You may do this by referring to information gleaned from the candidate during the interview process. Say something like:
- “I understand Mary helped implement a new payroll system. Can you tell me more about Mary’s role in that?”
- “I understand your department was under a lot of pressure because of the recent merger. Can you give me an example of how Mary got new employees to work with her?”
As the conversation progresses, you can hint at your anxieties and concerns. For instance, “Mary doesn’t have a lot of experience managing people. How do you think she’ll do as a supervisor?”
5. Stick to the facts
Focus on what the reference is saying rather than how she’s saying it. In other words, don’t read too much into the referee’s tone of voice or inflection. Besides, you don’t know whether the person you’re talking to is humorless, always speaks in a monotone, or is just having a bad day. The bulk of your judgment should be based on facts.
This is not dating; this is work. You cannot make emotional decisions.
6. There are, however, some red flags. It’s a bad sign, for instance, if:
- The job candidate did not inform the referee that you’d be calling.
- The referee says something along the lines of, “I’m really not the right person to talk about Mary;” that, too, does not reflect well on the candidate.
In the uncommon event that your understanding differs from what you hear from one or more references, ask the candidate to explain. You may find that it is nothing to be concerned about.
7. Check EQ
Be sure to ask referees about the candidate’s soft skills and social and emotional-intelligence-based capabilities. Ask questions such as:
- What can you tell me about Mary’s self-awareness and self-regulation?
- How motivated is she? Does she exhibit empathy?
- Is she flexible?
There are no right or wrong answers. But what you learn will help you get a sense for whether the candidate is “a cultural fit” for your organization. Try to understand the type of culture that this candidate has worked in and her ability to learn and adapt to new ones. Some organizations are collaborative, while others are more competitive. Some are long-term oriented; others are more short-term oriented.
End the conversation with one final question: Is there anything else relevant or useful to know about Mary?
8. Find ways in
When speaking to a reference proves challenging—for example, if your organization doesn’t allow managers to contact references directly or if HR on the other end is giving you only a basic confirmation of the candidate’s title and dates of employment—consider alternative ways to get the information you need. Seek out informal, “through-the-back-door” references by getting in touch with people in your network who also know the candidate.
Look at professional associations, personal networks, past employees, and LinkedIn to see if there’s any overlap. You’re not circumventing HR—you’re supplementing HR.
In conclusion—principles to remember:
- Gather feedback from all the people who interviewed the candidate and focus on one or two concerns you’d like to check out.
- Ask specific questions related to the role you’re trying to fill and its challenges. Avoid broad questions such as, “What can you tell me about Mary?”
- Listen to what the person is saying and don’t interrupt or supply the answer you want to hear.
Don’t do the following:
- Show any skepticism or negativity toward the candidate. The reference will be less likely to speak freely out of loyalty.
- Read anything into the person’s inflection. You don’t have enough context to judge a stranger’s tone of voice.
- Be stymied by HR policies that disallow reference checks. Seek out other sources of information such as professional associations, past employees, and LinkedIn to see if anyone in your extended network can enlarge your understanding of the candidate.
Your goal when reference checking is seeking out relevant job-related information about your candidate, so you can discover whether they will be a good fit for your company and the work to be done.