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3 Surprisingly Easy Ways to Generate Meaningful Candidate References

by on November 29, 2013

The critical part of effective reference checking lies in how you structure your call and set expectations, both with the candidate and the prior supervisors. It’s a lot easier than you think and yields outstanding results if you’ll follow these three simple tips in this article.

When you’re in the hiring seat, you’re expected to conduct thorough interviews, administer pre-employment tests, and typically conduct criminal background checks, but many employers still shy away from checking references with candidates’ prior employers. The mistaken reasons for this include:references_graphic

  • “Past employers won’t give references”
  • “It’s a waste of time: candidates only give you the names of people who will speak well about them”
  • “It’s illegal to check references and could expose our company to a lawsuit”

Nothing could be farther from the truth! In fact, hiring candidates without checking references is like having a loose cannon on the deck of your ship. Until you’ve vetted your impressions with prior immediate supervisors who have managed the individual on a day-to-day basis, you won’t know whom you’re hiring or what the real person behind the “interviewing facade” is all about until you’re well into the relationship.

Here are the three simple rules…

Rule 1: Tell the candidate that you’re in the process of checking references on several finalists for the position in question

First, this builds a sense of competition into the process and will typically motivate candidates to work harder to set up the referencing checking phone calls with their prior bosses. Second, since candidates will believe that they are one of several finalists under consideration, they won’t be shocked if they don’t get your job offer after the reference check step has been completed.

Note: What you don’t want to do is explain it this way: “Good news. You’ve completed all interviews and tested well, and now the only thing left to do is set up your reference calls . . .” Clearly, this is a problematic setup because if you don’t hire the candidate, he could assume it’s because he got a bad reference from one of his prior supervisors. That could create a whole lot of unnecessary drama and potential legal exposure for both the referent and your organization in the form of a libel / slander accusation or wrongful failure to hire claim.

Rule 2: Have the candidate do all the legwork in terms of “reference bridging” and setting up the call

Prior employers likely won’t engage in a reference conversation with you if you’re making a cold call. After all, if they haven’t heard from the candidate in a few years and had no idea this call would be coming, then the standard response mechanism will typically kick in: “Sorry, all reference calls need to be referred to our HR department.”

However, picture it this way: “Peter, our next step in the hiring process is to check references on our short-list of finalists. References are actually very important to us in the selection process, and I’d like to ask for your help. You listed four prior supervisors on your employment application, and I’d like to discuss them with you. I’d like to also ask you to reach out to them and ask them to vouch for you, so if you could call them up and let them know that you’re a finalist with us and tell them how excited you are, then they’ll probably feel more comfortable speaking with us. In fact, your former boss could either call me directly, or we could arrange a time for me to call her.”

See how that shifts the responsibility for tracking the supervisor down and setting up the call back to the candidate? That’s where it belongs. And if a candidate is super excited and asks a prior boss to speak with you, the chances are high that you’ll have a very insightful telephone call once you both connect.

Rule 3: When opening a conversation with a past supervisor, spread honey on the situation and tell more than ask where you’d like the individual’s help like this:

“Laura, Peter said some excellent things about your leadership abilities in terms of providing him clear with structure and direction in his day, and I was hoping that you could share some insights into his ability to excel in our company. (Sure)

“Our challenge here at XYZ Company is to find someone whose personality best matches the temperament of this role. The position that Peter’s applying for is very fast paced, it requires someone who enjoys working with the public and can sometimes tame cranky customers, and it also requires an analytical eye because there’s so much detail in the follow-up reports that are necessary. Did he tell you anything about the job or express interest in it at the time he asked you to speak with me.” (Yes—he said he was very excited.)

“Great! Then how does that sound as an overall fit in terms of his personality, his ability to work with the public, and his attention to detail?” (That sounds like a great match—it’s very similar to what he did here with us.)

“I’m glad to hear that. Then allow me to ask you some specific questions about Peter and his ability to excel in this particular role . . .”

And there you have it . . . Once you’ve set up the terms or context of your call this way, you can then begin asking questions about the candidate’s ability to excel in your environment—communicate effectively, accept constructive criticism, balance quality and quantity, for example, as well as areas for professional development, eligibility for rehire, and the like. With the proper setup and a handy list of insightful questions, you’ll be well on your way to engaging prior supervisors in the pre-employment selection process and developing an accurate understanding of what it’s like working with this individual side-by-side every day. In short, you’ll gain the advantage of developing a realistic glimpse of the real person whom you’re hiring—not just the candidate behind all the interviewing hype.

Related Products:

For more information on developing high value reference checking questions for senior executives, technical professionals, sales associates, and hourly workers, consider picking up a copy of Paul Falcone’s bestselling book 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire (one of SHRM’s “Great 8” Bestsellers!)

Also consider downloading Paul’s Reference Check Toolkit from our online Web Store.

Reference Check Toolkit — $14.99 USD

Hiring candidates without conducting in depth reference checks is like having a loose cannon on the deck of your ship. Based on Paul’s bestselling book 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, this toolkit provides five templates for (1) nonexempt, (2) sales, (3) IT/technical, (4) supervisory, and (5) senior leadership reference checks. Simply save and print out all five templates, and you’ll be off to the races in terms of engaging prior supervisors with customized questions regarding a candidate’s ability to excel in your organization.