Five Things You Can Learn From a Reference Check

October 9th, 2015

You’ve narrowed your candidate pool down to a handful of contenders, and you’ve asked each finalist to submit a list of references. And now you have a choice to make: Should you ignore these reference lists, or should you invest time, effort, and company resources in a series of phone calls and emails in order to inform your final decision?

Too often, managers choose the first option. At this point in the selection process, most employers already have a positive gut feeling about their preferred candidate, and they’d rather avoid a conversation that only confirms what they already know. Besides, most references tend to give uniformly glowing reports that add little substance to a candidate’s profile. But before you ignore your candidate’s reference list, recognize that a simple phone call can help you verify these five critical details before you make a commitment.

Is your candidate honest?

If his references are genuine, their stories check out, and they really are who the candidate says they are, great. You expect nothing less. But if they aren’t, now is the time to find out.

Is your candidate a trailblazer or does she toe the line?

By posing an open ended question about your candidate’s general approach to life and work, you can learn plenty about her willingness to break boundaries and try new things. Word the question like this: “Would you consider (candidate) to be more of a leader or a follower?” or “Can you tell me about a time when (candidate) broke a rule, tried an unconventional approach to a project, or pushed an idea that others didn’t immediately embrace? What were the results?”

Can your candidate handle the most difficult aspects of the job?

Identify the rarest or most challenging skill set that this job entails, such as CNC coding, public speaking, complex technical writing, or high level event planning. Ask the reference if he or she has direct experience with the candidate’s abilities in this area. Ask the person to speak freely on the subject, and read between lines of whatever you hear.

In what areas does the candidate NOT excel?

This is a tricky question, and it’s a difficult one to ask without seeming disrespectful of the candidate, or disrespectful of the relationship between the candidate and the reference. Try phrasing your question like this: “Can you name one task that you would rather assign to someone else instead of (candidate)?”

How can you bring out the best in this candidate?

If your reference is a former manager or supervisor, learn more about the kinds of tactics and management styles that can help you bring out the candidate’s best work. Frame the question as a simple request for advice. For example: “Can you offer me any management tips or guidance that might help (candidate) thrive in this position?”

For more on how to attract, select and retain the most talented candidates in the marketplace, reach out to the staffing team at Personnel Services Unlimited.

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