The value in a reference check – really, it’s not just a waste of time!

Paradoxically, many of the hiring managers and HR leaders that I work with believe that references are both necessary and of little value. “You have to do them to cover your ass and to validate your choice, but really they are no indication of whether an individual is a good hire” seems to be the reigning opinion. Really, who would give as a reference someone that would not say wonderful things?

While it is true that I have seen very few bad references – I can recall just 2 instances where a reference actually said that they would NOT rehire an individual – there is still a load of value that can be derived from a well-conducted reference check.

Even though almost all references are prepared, and sometimes coached by the candidate for the call, there is still an opportunity to garner insight that adds value to both the hiring decision and the management of the individual. It is easy to verify employment, but if that’s all you do with a reference check, you’ve wasted a great opportunity to get to know the person you may be hiring.

So – in addition to the standard verification of employment questions, here are some sample questions that will help you have a valuable reference conversation:

How would you describe his/her leadership style?

How does he/she behave in a highly stressful situation?

How much direction does he/she need when given broad and complex tasks?

What do you feel that he/she is capable of as a leader? (described in terms of team size, scope, industry, change etc)
Where would you draw the limitations of his/her leadership capabilities?

What were some of the leadership challenges that he/she faced, and how were these handled?

Speak to me about a specific success or accomplishment as a leader that you witnessed.

How would he/she be described by the people who reported to him/her?

What advice would you give for his next employer in terms of getting the best performance?

I also ask what else they’d like to add… and then leave some dead air. People are always uncomfortable with silence and your reference will continue to talk, to fill the void.

You should keep the tone conversational, to keep it comfortable and honest. This is another form of interview really, and you don’t just want the formal answer, but the person’s insight and opinions. And you can only get this if your develop some quick rapport. This is tricky if you’ve delegated the reference check process to a less experienced interviewer or someone who does not know the candidate.  The more skilled your ‘reference-checker’, the more value you get from the call.

When you design your reference question list, look at the types of characteristics you were looking for when you designed the job and conducted interviews. If the role demands resourcefulness, your reference can be asked whether this is a strength. If your interviewers were a little concerned about the person’s ability to present to an executive team, ask a question about that. The results of your reference should validate your choice, and give additional insight into your new hire’s past work performance.

Finally, many companies are quite careful about the legal implications of letting managers give employment references for past employees. While, in practice, I have never been denied a detailed conversation about an individual’s past employment history and performance, I’ve specifically not touched on the issues around privacy laws and liability. A quick google search will give you some tips relating to regional laws – I take no responsibility.


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