Reference Checking to get the Real Story


Checking references is always a fun task, usually becoming a cat and mouse game in order to pull out the candidate’s skeletons. Unfortunately in today’s recruiting world, reference checking is a checklist item used to confirm that a piece of the process has been completed. Viewing this as a basic process does not benefit the client, your employer or the candidate. Yes, you are filling out the form and asking the questions you are required to ask, however, there are risks of not getting the real story behind the candidate when approaching reference checks in this manner. It’s a fact that 99% of all references will return a positive response, but it is impossible that all candidates are great candidates, so someone has to get to the truth to understand where the candidate falls on the spectrum of quality. If we know going in that there is a predetermined outcome, why not try to get the real truth by digging a little deeper?

Instead, try reference checking this way:

  1. Before looking at the candidate’s reference list, seek connections within your own network. It might be likely that you don’t have any direct connections with the candidate, however, your network should always be growing through LinkedIn, giving you the opportunity to find a 2nd or 3rd degree connection that is close to the candidate or who has worked with the candidate. Or, look in your applicant tracking system for other high quality candidates that may have worked with your candidate in the same company at the same time. If you can identify a credible connection, you should be able to get an order of magnitude on the capabilities of the candidate. Your contacts and referrals from your network are more likely to give you the real picture, good or bad.
  2. Ask the references for names of others that worked with the candidate. Don’t stop with the reference list. Ask the reference who else the candidate has worked with. Drop names if you have to find a relevant source. Do whatever it takes to get to the team of people that worked with and around the candidate. Talk to the guy or gal that sat in the cube next to them if you have to. Again, the idea is to get to those people that worked with the candidate, but who were NOT listed as a reference. The best insights may just come from the unlisted individuals.
  3. Don’t read from a reference check form. Providing a script-like or checklist reference check form can be one of the absolute worst things a company can do in the reference checking process. Companies should make a note below the title of a reference check form that says “DO NOT ASK THESE QUESTIONS VERBATIM. USE THIS AS A GUIDE”. While most recruiters ask loaded questions, reference checking is a vetting process not a preconceived conclusion. Put the form down and ask questions with passion, listen to the answers, and make sure that you are really hearing what each reference has to say.
  4. Ask all of the tough questions. This point becomes an extension of #3. By putting down the form, you are forced to think on your feet and create a conversation. Pick up the job description and ask tough questions that allow you to assess the candidate actions and behaviors in situations relevant to the job function. Asking them where they rank from 1-5 in Java is a useless question. The question should be more like “How many Java Developers were in the company and if you were to force rank all of them, where does Joe Candidate fall in order among his peers in each of these categories: reliability of work product effectiveness, code bugginess, resourcefulness, speed of development, and testing. The idea of reference checking is to dig in deep and get a real handle on the candidate. In addition to ditching the 1-5 type of questions, ask about situations where the candidate was put into stressful or key situations and ask OPEN ended questions on how they responded to these situations, always keeping in mind the job description and its applicability to the role. By the way, asking about the candidate’s weaknesses is not considered a tough question.
  5. Pretend that you own the company. Taking ownership completely changes the recruiter’s perspective. The recruiter should be reference checking as though they would be paying the candidate their would-be compensation out of their own pocket. If a recruiter can capture this mindset, their interview style will turn a 180. Reference questions will organically change and the recruiter will automatically become more selective with candidates. There is risk and downside to this frame of mind in that the recruiter may be weeding out some very good candidates by being too selective. Ultimately, if the recruiter feels good about sitting next to their candidate in a foxhole, then the client should be happy about the performance of the services, increasing competitive advantage. Check references as though you were going to be writing the checks.

Be a detective when looking for the complete story. If you can uncover all of the details, you will know the extent to which the candidate is viable for your company or your client. Don’t get off the phone until you have all of the answers to all of your questions.