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Why reference checks still matter

Written by: Dan Erling
Published on: Oct 18, 2018

telephone reference

Some argue that references are worthless – after all, why would anyone connect you with a person who would speak negatively?

In the hands of an unprepared hiring manager, that might be true. But with the right approach, referencing is a hugely valuable exercise where true insights can be shared, and strengths and weaknesses explored. Even in a reference call, a professional dialog can lead to the realization that the person being discussed would not be the right fit for the role.

Getting an honest assessment


A reference can help align the right candidate with the right job, but it must be more than just a few favorable thoughts shared on social media by an acquaintance or colleague. Effective references are honest assessments of a candidate’s character, work, and the outcomes resulting from that work.

Exceptional recruiters know how to derive value from the reference checking process. They don’t go with “check a box” queries, but behavioral questions that get to the essence of the candidate’s defining qualities. This approach allows the recruiter to unearth a story about the candidate, revealing behaviors and qualities that will help define their fit for the available role and the company culture.

Further, the savvy recruiter asks for references across the spectrum – peers, subordinates, and bosses. Ideally, you’ll want to check these three areas at each point in a candidate’s career growth. In an executive search, this can result in a dozen references, whereupon a clear picture should emerge. This is especially true when you also ask your candidate questions like these:

  • When I am conducting your reference check, I will focus both on your strengths and weaknesses. What do you expect your references to tell me?

  • When I inquire about areas where you need to improve, how do you think they will respond?

For elite recruiters, reference questions like, “On a scale of 1-10, how are their people skills?” are a thing of the past. Instead, questions take a more anecdotal, narrative approach, inviting references to recollect situations that provide an accurate sense of who the candidate is, what motivates them, and how they engage to get results. For example:

  • Tell me about a time Rick had to deal with a difficult client.

  • Tell me about a time that Janelle had to overcome challenging circumstances to deliver for a client.

  • Tell me about Lin’s approach to working with his colleagues.

Rather than terse, one-word answers, this approach allows for references to expand on the qualities of the candidate, opening possibilities for dialogue that will truly help you determine which candidates are best.

Again, these questions are best asked in a 360-degree fashion – to supervisors, colleagues, and subordinates alike, across the spectrum of the candidates’ interactions – to get a full picture of how the candidate works and how they respond to different situations. Though it’s no guarantee, past performance is a strong litmus test for measuring someone’s approach to work, and the most accurate way to evaluate talent.

The ultimate outcome is to gain a clear, encompassing understanding of the behaviors, character traits, and work habits of your top candidates. For employers, this will give you confidence in who is onboarding with your company – and for potential employees, it provides assurance that the company hiring you knows exactly who they are getting, making it an ideal match.

Dan Erling is the CEO of Atlanta recruiting firm AccountantsOne and author of Match: A Systematic, Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time. You can find more advice from Dan and his colleagues on the Accountants One blog, where this article originally appeared in a slightly different version.