There may be no more critical step in the hiring process than reference checking. Executed correctly, it provides an opportunity to receive objective input about a candidate's performance, style, integrity, heart, etc. To quote Peter Drucker: "The quality and performance of a manager is the only effective advantage an enterprise in a competitive economy can have ... The investment in managers outweighs the investment in every other resource ..." Effective referencing enables organizations to make more knowledgeable hiring decisions and to recruit more outstanding managers and leaders.

As a member of the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC), Sockwell & Associates is frequently exposed to professional literature. Some of the suggestions which follow have appeared in the AESC's publication, Reference Checking. A Critical Tool for Executive Selection. It is our hope that these points will provide a fundamental understanding of the reference checking process.

How many references are enough?
Between five and ten. Five in-depth discussions with selected forthcoming individuals may be sufficient unless "red flags" appear. Twenty 10-minute conversations with references speaking only to surface issues are not enough!

At what stage should references be checked?
Talk with a few references early. After one or two telephone conversations with a potential candidate, ask for permission to talk with two or three people familiar with his/her professional background. Always take this step before taking the time to conduct a personal interview.

Most of the referencing should be conducted following the initial face-to-face interview. After meeting the candidate, the reference checker will better understand the issues to be resolved and can more effectively prepare relevant, probing questions.

For reasons of confidentiality, it may not be possible to talk with quintessential references (i.e., current employer) prior to the extension of an offer. In these cases, the offer must be made contingent upon satisfactory completion of this important final step.

Guide To Effective Referencing

Who are "good" references?
Professional references are more valuable than personal ones. Talk with every boss the candidate has had for the last ten years. Identify subordinates in the past two or three positions, and randomly talk with a representative cross-section. Identify important associations in the candidate's recent past (i.e., customers, suppliers, board members, consultants, industry peers) and talk with them.

The reference checker, not the candidate, should select the references. Do not simply ask candidates for a list of references. Working with the candidate, the reference checker must lead the process of developing the final list of references.

At the conclusion of a reference call, ask the reference, "Could you suggest others I might call ... or ... can you think of someone who did not get along with the candidate?"

Who should check references?
While it is acceptable for the search consultant or a human resources professional to make most of the reference calls, the hiring executive must take part in the process. It is critical that the person directly responsible for the performance of the recruited candidate receive firsthand input from references.

How long will it take to check references thoroughly?
A conversation with a quality reference will take from 15 to 30 minutes depending upon the ease with which the reference "opens up." Allowing for at least five references, the entire process (including callbacks) will require a minimum of two hours per candidate.

How do you protect yourself and the candidate?
Ask the candidate for written authorization to talk with references ... all of them. When you learn of new references, obtain a written release covering these individuals as well.

Reference checkers must not solicit or use discriminatory information. Using references to illegally deny a job may invite a lawsuit. Only firsthand information, never hearsay, should be reported.

How do you begin the reference conversation?
Introduce yourself, state the purpose of your call, and mention that the candidate authorized the contact. Inform the reference that your conversation may take fifteen minutes or more so that you can determine if this is a convenient time.

Find out how long the reference has known the candidate and in what context. Stress the importance of confidentiality and that, while notes will be taken, no comments will be attributed to the reference. Ask initially for the candidate's strong suits and for specific accomplishments. It is important to ask these questions before describing the position.

What are the questions to ask?
Ask open-ended questions that require expansive answers. Avoid questions that can be answered by "yes" or "no". If you begin questions with words such as "how", "why", "what", or "would", the reference is likely to be more descriptive. Seek specific examples to support generalizations.

Ask for adjectives that describe the candidate; sometimes it is necessary to use "prompts" such as "motivator", "hard-nosed", "accessible", "leader", "team player", "bright", "competitive", "aggressive", "creative", etc. Make inquiries about use of drugs and alcohol; determine whether the candidate resigned or was fired in previous positions; inquire as to whether the reference would rehire; ask for other references; and ask whether there is anything you failed to ask.

Tailor specific questions to address issues/concerns that have come up during the recruiting process. Using questions where the answer falls along a continuum can be especially effective. Example: in a sales mode, will the candidate be more effective knocking on doors or maintaining relationships?

How to elicit negatives or concerns
Because every candidate has weaknesses, it is imperative that the referencing is comprehensive. Help the reference understand that a true picture is as important to the candidate as it is to the potential employer. The reference must become comfortable with the fact that it is your job to ensure that neither side makes a mistake.

When the hiring executive knows in advance the areas where support may be required, everyone profits. A good understanding of weaknesses can often be gained by asking, "In what areas has the candidate improved the most in the last few years?"

How to close a reference call
Thank the reference for his/her time. Send a follow-up letter. Not only is that professional, but, most importantly, it enables you to call the reference back should the need arise.

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