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Checking References

Posted by Mary Ann Kelly

Many of our clients don’t put a lot of stock in references supplied by candidates because they’re hand-selected to provide the most glowing reviews. It’s true, you’d have to be out of your mind to provide the names of people that would be critical of you!

So, as an employer, how do you get reliable intel about the people you want to hire?

The Back Channel

There’s back-channel reference checking, of course: Going to your network to see who can provide the lowdown on your candidate. LinkedIn makes it easy to see who you and this prospective hire have in common.

But be discrete and respectful. Especially if candidates are actively employed, it’s lame to noisily question their current colleagues and supervisors. The worst thing you can do is pick up the phone and say, ”Oh hey, your colleague’s resume just landed on my desk, what can you tell me about him?”

As recruiters, we regularly use our back channel, and this is how we do it: We *only* check people out with contacts we trust to be honest and exercise discretion. And we *never* disclose that anyone is job hunting. Instead, we’ll say something like “Hey, Rachel from your network looks very interesting/was recommended to us, and we’re thinking about calling her. What can you tell us about her?” Meanwhile, even if we’ve been working with Rachel and are about to get her an offer, we haven’t blown her cover.

For job seekers:

Just as you would with your credit report, it’s smart to conduct a regular audit of your professional reputation. Before you interview, look at those who you have in common with your potential employer. How are they likely to respond to your candidacy? Depending on the circumstances, you may want to tell them you’re interviewing to get their buy-in and support.

If there is a “hater” out there, be realistic about what they may say about your and be prepared to respond to it. Be honest with your recruiter, so we can get out in front of it instead of having to sheepishly explain ourselves later.

Official Reference Checks

Beyond your network, official reference checks shouldn’t be altogether discredited, because they can:

·         Provide important details about past job performance, which experts say is the best indicator of future job performance

·         Permit you to explore specific strengths or development opportunities for new hires

·         Introduce you to more people in the industry

Of course, it does depend on who you talk to. In general, the most valuable references come from Supervisors or Clients that have the vantage point of assessing strategic aptitude, presentation and leadership skills, etc. Peer-level or direct reports are less meaningful, as are references from a long, long time ago that aren’t in touch with candidate’s present day capabilities.

Below are some sample questions that you can use to guide a substantive conversation about the candidate’s skills. (These happen to be the ones we use for Account Managers. There’s a different set for leadership roles, sales, etc.)

Recognize that you may need go off script to get the information you really want. For example, “Rachel is being considered for our retail business. The clients are very eager and willing to explore new ideas, but they’re impatient and critical too. We need someone with thick skin; who doesn’t rattle easily and can handle high volume. Does Rachel have relevant experience that would prepare her for this role?”

Finally, you may need to prompt – even ask the reference to quantify or rate – your candidate’s performance if they don’t elaborate beyond, “Rachel’s awesome. You should hire her.”

Sample reference questions for Account Management:

  1. How long have you known the candidate? In what capacity did you work together?
  2. Describe a project you worked on together. What are some of the important contributions that the candidate made?
  3. What attributes set the candidate apart from his/her peers? Or, in what ways did the candidate exceed your expectations?
  4. How did clients respond to the candidate? Did they seek out/value their opinion? Was the candidate able to introduce new ideas, improve/extend/grow the client relationship?
  5. What would internal teams and/or direct reports say? Any areas of friction?
  6. Rate the candidate’s ability to present his recommendations, both oral and written.
  7. Can the candidate articulate the marketing strategy/program goals? Does s/he show an aptitude for strategic thinking/analytical skills?
  8. What sort of management style works best for this candidate? (E.g. How much direction, supervision or autonomy does s/he require?)
  9. What advice would you give to this candidate’s future boss? (Areas for development, how s/he responds to different management styles) How did their last performance review go?
  10. If you had the opportunity to hire this candidate again, would you?
  11. Anything else I should know?
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