Reference Checks


The most obvious solution to ensure a reference isn’t blowing smoke is to ask questions in such a way that the answers can’t be exaggerated by the reference.  How is that done?  Simply by asking open-ended questions.  For example, if your company needs, let’s say, a hands-on manager in a particular functional area, a competent reference checker would never ask a question like this: “Would you say that so-and-so is a good hands-on manager?”  The way to ask that question is to phrase it like this: “How would you describe so-and-so’s management style?”  By leaving the description of the style to the reference, there’s no way he or she can guess what sort of management style you’re looking for and, therefore, can’t offer fake laudatory comments! 

If the answer to the preceding question is something like, “Mary’s really good at delegating responsibility to subordinates and then making sure they complete tasks on time and within budget,”  even if that answer is candid and honest, it still could mean that Mary isn’t right for the job to be filled.  And if all three references describe Mary’s management style in the same way, the prospective employer can feel reasonably confident that effective delegation really is how she goes about managing the time and activities of others – and that may not be the style the employer needs. 

Here’s another approach.  If it’s vital, let’s say, to hire someone who is great at teambuilding and that’s the skill you need most in a new employee, one way to ask the question might be to say, “What do you think so-and-so’s main strengths are?”  By asking the question in that way, there’s no way the reference can second guess what talents the prospective employer needs, and it certainly would be suspect if the reference said the candidate was good at everything.  Why?  Because no one’s perfect. 

Finally, one particular question I like to ask is, “What do you think so-and-so needs to continue his/her career growth?”  Even if a reference wants to blow smoke about how wonderful the prospective candidate is, there’s no way to respond to that question with a laudatory comment that’s believable.  Think about it for a minute.  Would you believe a response like this: “Oh, John is just wonderful at everything he does.  There’s not a single thing he could do to improve his job performance.”  Of course not!  Again, nobody’s perfect and everybody can improve in some area of their overall job performance.  And, even if you got a response like that, the follow-up question would have to be, “Could you give me some specific examples that might show how his overall performance is so exceptional?”

Open-ended questions are the key.