When hiring, do you do your own reference checks? You should!
I continually meet with leaders who have hired an employee, only to terminate them within months of recruiting them. When I ask why, they reveal that they were surprised by a behaviour or absence of a critical skill set that didn’t surface during the interview process. When I ask whether they personally did reference checks, the answer is consistently “no”.
Many people feel checking references provided by the candidate are a waste of time. In addition, they are uncomfortable with checking or unable to find “backdoor references” that are not obtained from the candidate.
I always attempt to find “backdoor references”; often early in the recruiting process; often before I have even interviewed the candidate. Why waste mine and the candidate’s time doing an interview if there are experience or fit gaps that can be identified early. Further, backdoor references provide information that allows me to target and probe areas of the candidate’s experience, attitudes and skills that I might otherwise overlook.
I also value reference conversations with people candidates provide. While many executives will say: “Why bother, they are only going to give you good references.”, I am occasionally surprised by the bad references that candidates unintentionally provide. Generally though, the references people provide are strong, positive and well-intentioned. Even then, I learn a lot which informs my hiring decision.
To gain value from the reference, I use the following ten questions (or variations thereof):
1) I always introduce myself and give a biographic sketch of who I am. In turn, the reference introduces themselves and gives an equal rundown of their career.
- I use this opening to understand who I am talking to. I want to determine if they are a credible person to provide a reference. If their background and experience is too narrow or not relevant to my situation, then I will put less weight into their reference and opinion. For example: I am looking to hire someone for a small company, want them to be innovative, self-directed and be able to handle the give & take and ambiguity of small business. If the person providing the reference is from large enterprise or government and has only seen the person in an environment of routine, order, process, slow rates of change, bureaucracy etc., what they articulate as positive traits may be exactly what I don’t want in the candidate.
2) “How did you meet her or him?”
- I use this question to understand the relationship between the reference and the candidate. Have they worked together closely enough for the person to evaluate them and credibly answer my questions or was it just a casual relationship or friendship?
3) “What was he or she like to work for?”
- I want to understand how they manage subordinates. I want to explore things like accountability, mentoring, employee development, employee retention and so on.
4) “What has made her or him successful?”
- This is where I usually learn what drives the candidate. Often, I discover attributes that may or may not be a culture fit for my company, like ambition/success at all cost, workaholic tendencies, consensus versus autocratic decision making style, collaborative versus top down, kiss up/slap down behaviours, etc.
5) “How does he or she react under stress?”
- High stress often brings out the worst in all of us. Our filters go away. This is often where I learn more about the person’s negative characteristics and their level of self-awareness of these weaknesses. A boss once told me in a performance review that “I am one of the best he has ever seen at change management as long as I am in control of the change. In high stress situations, if I am not in control of the change, my behaviour is not good.” I am pretty sure he would share that if he was doing a positive reference call for me.
6) “How does she or he manage employees when they are under stress?”
- This question gives an insight into the candidate’s EQ and how they manage people. Are they cold and efficient or supportive and nurturing? The right answer depends on your company culture.
7) “What is he or she like in front of a customer?”
- Are they comfortable in front of people? Do they have good business acumen? Do they have customer facing skills? Sometimes I get the answer “I have never seen them in front of a customer” which could be a yellow flag that they don’t ever leave their office.
8) “If you were managing her or him, what would you do to make them successful?”
- This question forces the reference to talk about areas the candidate needs development. This is where you might get an answer like “She is a great people manager, very outgoing, everyone loves her, but make sure she has a good number person working with her because she is not detail oriented and doing spreadsheets is not her happy place”
9) “A person’s biggest strength can be their biggest weakness. What should we watch for?”
- This question also forces them to talk about potential weak areas.
10) “Any closing thoughts that you would like to share?”
- This is an classic open-ended question that allows them to tell me anything they think is important. Hopefully by this point in the conversation, I have built rapport with the reference provider and they are willing to open up and tell me things they think will help the candidate to be successful in their new role.
Most of the time, after interviews and shortlist, I am looking for reference interviews to give me insight into culture fit and how if I hire the candidate, can I support them to be successful. Most of the time, I get confirmation and tips on managing the person. Occasionally, I get something that stops this candidate in the process and avoids a bad hire.
I generally schedule 30 to 45 minutes for the reference call and usually use the majority of that time. I like to do 3 or 5 normal and backdoor reference calls prior to hiring so it is a big commitment of time but not as expensive as a bad hiring decision.
So, if you are hiring someone, don’t leave reference checks to your recruiter. Do them yourself.