What exactly is being checked in a reference check? I compared notes with the rest of our Chaloner team and there is a shared rhythm we tend to follow for these conversations. We identified some fundamental things we hope to learn from a good reference.
Getting Down to the Details
The reference has information that no other part of the hiring process can reveal: first-hand experience working with the candidate. You want to frame the conversation in a way that the reference can speak openly and honestly and this means listening well and asking good follow-up questions. Kassie Wilner says, “You want an authentic reference. I begin the conversation with some leading questions but I like to let those springboard into opportunities to gather specific examples.”
Strengths, Weaknesses, and Working with Others
No doubt the candidate has already been asked to speak to their perceived strengths and weaknesses. The reference might corroborate, dispute or further enhance what you’ve been told, which will reveal something about the candidate’s level of self-awareness. Instead of putting a reference on the spot and asking them what a candidate is not good at, you can phrase the question differently by asking something like, “If you were going to recommend a professional development course for this person to attend, what would it be?” Christine Santeusanio points out that the reference can also provide insight into how a candidate interacts with peers, subordinates and management, having known the candidate in one of these capacities and observed them in other working relationships.
Setting Them Up for Success
“References can be excellent sources of information on how to best work with a new hire,” suggests Jenn Saldarelli. “They might share really valuable information on how a candidate organizes him/herself, best takes direction, communicates, or even some personal information, that could otherwise take months for the hiring manager to figure out on their own.” For instance, we recently checked four references for a candidate and they all mentioned how that person likes to be acknowledged for their work, which was useful information to pass on to the hiring manager.
You can usually tell when a person will be a good reference for someone when they have a lot of positive things to say right off the bat and certain themes carry through the conversation. If you are ever asked to serve as a reference for someone, do him or her a favor by reading up on the role and speaking candidly with the recruiter or hiring manager. Your enthusiasm about a candidate will go a long way towards securing the potential employer’s confidence at this late point in the process.
Chaloner, founded in 1979 as Chaloner Associates, is a national executive search firm that focuses on recruiting mid- to senior-level communications, public relations, marketing and investor relations professionals.