Landing the perfect candidate feels like finding a unicorn: rare and magical. But before you extend the offer, reference checks are a crucial step to ensure that dazzling interview performance translates to real-world success. Here’s how to conduct reference checks that go beyond simply verifying employment. Handled correctly, references can truly help you hire the right candidate.

Preparation is Key:

  • Get Permission: If you are contacting a current employer, always secure the candidate’s consent before contacting a reference. Not doing so can cause harm to the candidate if he/she stays with the company.
  • Do Your Research: Identify the most relevant references – ideally past supervisors who can directly speak to the candidate’s performance in the role most like the one you’re offering.

Craft Powerful Questions:

  • Ditch the Yes/No: Move beyond basic confirmation questions like dates of employment. Ask open-ended questions that encourage detailed responses. If the answer to the question you are going to ask can be yes or no, choose a different question.
  • Focus on Specific Skills: Tailor your questions to the key skills and experience required for the role. For example, “Can you describe a time the candidate demonstrated strong leadership qualities?”
  • Behavioral Interviewing Magic: Use the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to delve deeper. Ask the reference to describe a specific situation where the candidate displayed a desired behavior and the outcome of their actions.

Listen Beyond the Words:

  • Pay Attention to Nuances: While the content of the response is important, so is how it’s delivered. Hesitation, vague answers, awkward pauses, or overly positive responses might indicate a lack of enthusiasm or sugarcoating the truth.
  • Read Between the Lines: Sometimes, what’s not said can be revealing. If the reference seems reluctant to elaborate on specific areas, it might be a red flag.

Embrace the Unexpected:

  • Don’t Be Afraid of Negative Feedback: Listen for specific examples of areas where the candidate could improve – these can be coaching opportunities in the future.
  • Follow Up Intuitively: If a reference’s response sparks a question or concern, don’t hesitate to follow up for clarification. Trust your gut and delve deeper if something feels off.

Go Beyond the Standard References:

  • Find Additional References Not Supplied by the Candidate: Consider reaching out to colleagues where appropriate, that have overlapped employment with your candidate or could be aware of your candidate’s legacy.

Perhaps you have a friend or a LinkedIn connection that worked for the same company your top candidate has worked for during the same time. These individuals can offer insights into the candidate’s teamwork, communication, and work ethic from a peer or client perspective. And, they have not been coached.

Acquiring such a reference can be more casual than a traditional reference check. Reach out with a note stating you want to pick your connection’s brain for a moment.

Keep in mind you are reaching out to someone you know, not someone the candidate has recommended. When you get them on the phone, just explain you are gathering information about a potential hire and wonder if they could share what they know about your candidate. The candid reference this produces can be quite valuable in making the final decision.

Happy Hunting!


Are you having difficulty finding talented employees to fill your open positions? With 25 years of experience, a 4.8 Google rating, an average experience level of 22 years, our own Thought Leadership Team, and an A+ rating from the BBB, you will quickly see why we’ve built so many permanent, long-term client relationships. Visit our website at www.execsallied.com/employers or Email us at info@execsallied.com. We are here to help!