The vast majority of reference check calls should really be labeled validation calls. Once you have selected a winner, you have a few pleasant conversations with folks who will offer comforting, and hopefully enthusiastic, thumbs up on the candidate you want to hire. The dutiful among you will press references for some insights on perceived weaknesses or areas needing improvement.

But it is a rare reference call that will cause you to actually change your mind on a candidate. In fact, many busy general counsel will delegate reference checking to a recruiter (internal or external).

I offer two best practices thoughts on making reference checks more relevant and valuable. First, reference check while the interview process remains competitive. When you are down to two or three finalists, reference conversations can really inform your selection. You may notice a difference in enthusiasm levels, and if so, that can help guide you toward the right hire. And if reference comments raise yellow flags on a candidate, you are more likely to let that new information influence your decision. It’s far more difficult to pull back on a choice you have already made.

If this best practice sounds too time consuming, you can delegate some calls to the recruiter in charge of the opening. Just be sure you trust the recruiter to make useful calls. Because recruiters want to get the position filled, they tend to throw softballs. Because I value my long-term credibility, I have delivered yellow- and red-flag reference comments to our clients. Again, this feedback is most helpful when two or three strong finalists are still competing.

Recognizing that most candidate-proffered references will be positive, my second best practice suggestion is a simple technique for getting added value from those calls. When a reference is a “no reservations” cheerleader for the candidate—those are good calls—make this disarming comment: “Thank you, I think Jane would be an excellent addition to our team.” Followed by: “If she joins our department, I want to make sure that we maximize her potential. I would welcome your thoughts on the management style that, in your opinion, is the most conducive to getting the best from Jane and keeping her happy.”

This approach often yields helpful comments on what makes the candidate tick. Everyone wants to hire self-motivated inside counsel, but motivation is always influenced to a degree by management style. Some people respond well to constructive criticism, for example, while others get defensive. A little insight from a former supervisor can help you get the new hire off to a fast and sustainable start. 

Lastly, you may be tempted to call one or two people who are not on the candidate-proffered reference list. As a recruiter, this approach makes me nervous, but not because I fear negative comments. I worry about confidentiality issues when a candidate is currently employed. So if you must make a “behind the scenes” reference call, please be careful. Worst-case scenario, though rare, your company could face liability if candidate confidentiality is breached and a termination results.