A Reference Checking Template

It is reasonable to assert that hiring decisions are enhanced by breadth and volume of information. In other words, interview impressions are strengthened by psychometric testing, job simulations, case studies, and reference checking.

Reference checking is among the most commonly used, yet distrusted stages in most hiring processes. In essence, the hiring organization seeks data by which to corroborate or dispel impressions of a candidate from references hand-selected by the candidate for the likelihood they will provide positive feedback. As a result, some firms eschew references altogether or seek to supplement them with so-called ‘back door’ references from trusted sources. While these can be informative, they can also jeopardize confidentiality for candidates that are employed. Yet other firms have begun offloading the task altogether to various automated reference checking tools available on the market.

For senior roles, a strong case can be made that direct dialog with a variety of referees has value.  While references are selected for their favorable impressions of a candidate, that does not mean that they will not be balanced or willing to comment on the whole individual, virtues, vices and everything in between. Also, while some people seem unable to offer more than monosyllabic, one dimensional comments on even their closest of friends, others provide fascinating insight on the complexities of the person concerned. All of which means that more references are better than less, and one should have a plan when talking to references.

What follows is an approach and set of questions from which any firm can construct an effective reference-checking protocol

  1. Have a few specific areas to probe. Know the culture the candidate will need to thrive in (and more importantly what attributes will predict success in that environment).
  2. Identify the relationship of the referee to the candidate and how long they have known each other.
  3. Confirm approximate dates of employment where possible.
  4. What are the lasting impressions of the candidate; i.e. his or her immediate and spontaneous thoughts in looking back?
  5. What were the candidate’s accountabilities and how did he/she go about executing on them? How would the referee describe the culture of the organization in which the candidate worked at the time? What kind of attributes did one need to be successful in that environment? What were the obstacles to success? How did the candidate go about overcoming them?
  6. How would the referee describe the candidate’s approach to problem solving, and their general analytical abilities……can they provide examples. Can they comment on the candidate’s general attitude, initiative and decision-making style? In broad terms does the person work best in structured or unstructured environments (i.e. street fighter versus professional boxer)? How do they deal with change? Ask for examples.
  7. Ask for a few general comments on the candidate’s personality. How would the referee describe it, what sticks out? Specific areas to probe include style of interaction; team style; general disposition; handling of stress and energy level – mood swings or unpredictability? Were they required to work independently?
  8. Ask about oral and written communication skills, as well as listening abilities.
  9. Ask about the person’s management skills, styles, effectiveness, motivational techniques, handling of problem situations and team building abilities. Ask for illustrations…
  10. What promotional opportunities existed and what potential was seen?
  11. Review the position profile for specific competencies which need to be probed.  For example, if ‘planning skills’ was important, ask questions like… ‘Can you give me an example of the kind of planning this person was required to do in their role; How did they go about it etc (use the behavioral interview format to probe) .
  12. What improvements or areas of concern existed? What were the limitations?
  13. Ascertain the reasons for leaving.
  14. Find out who else might be able to comment on this individual.
  15. Ask the reference to make a projection about an ideal employment match; the type of organization the candidate would be best suited to, as well as the position and environment.
  16. When closing, ask “Is there anything else you feel might be pertinent?”

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at [email protected] or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777

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