After understanding the dynamics of a candidate reference check (Part 1) and creating a strong foundation for a successful call (Part 2), you are now fully prepared to engage in a discussion to yield the greatest value for your hiring decision (Part 3). As you begin your call, a suggested approach:
Set the Tone at the Beginning.
At the onset of the conversation, let the reference know that you are the hiring manager and what your goals are for the call. This will set the tone for the call and put the reference on notice that this will not be a box-checking exercise.
Understand the Relationship Context.
In order to gain the most insight and ask effective questions, you need to know the context of the reference’s relationship with the candidate. This should be the first talk thread out of the gate. Is this reference a peer? Manager? Subordinate? How long they’ve known each other? How often did they work together? What was the context of their working interaction? Can this reference provide a relevant perspective with regard to this candidate? If not, ask the candidate to provide another that meets your requirements.
Lead With the Softballs.
References are standing by to say good things about a candidate during a reference call. So allow them to get all the perfunctory praise off their chests upfront. To kick things off, ask two to three softball questions. Example: “What are Alex’s strengths?” “Do you think Alex is a team player?” “Is Alex a hard worker?” This will allow for greater comfort in opening up later when your questions are more nuanced.
Transition to “Smart” Questions.
The best questions are more nuanced-and tease out information rather than serve as blunt instruments. These are not are the standard inquiries like “Would you rehire this candidate?” or “Why did this candidate leave his/her job?”etc. They are nuanced questions that will elicit the “tells” you need. Also note: As you ask your questions and engage, don’t over share information about your culture and the qualities you seek-or the lead the reference to provide the answer you want. Keeping things slightly opaque will require the reference to answer the question more reliably rather than telling you what they think you want to hear. Below are a few examples of “smart” questions:
- Tell me a little more about Alex’s work style. What type of environment do you think best suits her?
- If I became her manager, in what areas could I best support Alex in her professional development?
- If you have to choose one, which weighs heavier on the scale, Alex’s IQ or EQ? Why?
- What type of personality would create conflict with Alex?
- How would you describe Alex’s temperament?
- What is the one area you think Alex would like to improve?
- What type of projects/things did Alex get excited about at work?
- How would you describe the % breakdown of Alex’s practice?
- Can you give me an example where you’ve experienced Alex going the extra mile at work?
- What tools does Alex have to deal with conflict?
- Is Alex a detailed or big picture person? Can you give me examples?
- What are three things Alex needs to succeed and thrive in her job?
- Do you know Alex’s career aspirations?
- What would drive Alex to leave an organization? What would drive her to stay?
- During your tenure managing Alex, was she ever eligible for a promotion/raise? Did she receive them?
- Would you put your credibility and reputation on the line in recommending Alex? Would there be any caveats?
Checking candidate references does not have to be an exercise in futility. It can be a valuable part of the interviewing process that can confirm doubts, reinforce good feelings or make you think twice. But just how valuable it is, depends on You. As the hiring manager, you have the most to gain … and to lose from your hiring decision. So take the responsibility. And put in the time, thought and effort to ensure the person you hire … is the real deal.
Julie Brush is the founder and author of The Lawyer Whisperer (www.thelawyerwhisperer.com), a career advice column for legal professionals, also found on LinkedIn. She is co-founder of Solutus Legal Search, a legal search/consulting boutique firm, serving as a strategic adviser to lawyers, law firms and corporations.