Julie Brush. Julie Brush.

In an employer’s ideal world, a candidate’s references would provide a treasure trove of information … from the minutiae of their legal experience to the skeletons in their closet.

But in the real world, references are rarely believed to add value. And are increasingly used as box checking exercises to satisfy HR hiring requirements. Why? Because hiring managers typically encounter one of the following when checking references … The candidate reference:  can only verify employment, is positive about everything, is too generic in his/her commentary, avoids direct questions by spinning answers, has not worked with the candidate in a meaningful way; when asked about negatives/weaknesses, either doesn’t provide any or will use a “weakness” that an employer might perceive as a positive. Ex: “Kate can sometimes work too hard.” So employers leave the conversation frustrated with no more information than they started. This has left some hiring managers ditching the exercise altogether, while others search for a better way.

So is there a better way? Yes.

But it takes time and effort … from the employer to make it work. First, a few important things to know:

  • Extracting the greatest value from checking a reference requires a Ph.D. in reading between the lines. No reference will be brutally honest, but the tells will be there if you ask the right questions … and can decipher the answers.
  • References are busy professionals and rarely enter a conversation having seriously pondered all facets of the candidate in question. They’re simply too busy—and much of the time, their thoughts will be on the fly. So if you want value, you’re going to have to work to get it.
  • Being a reference for another professional can be a tough spot to be in. Some don’t know how to say no. And most are afraid to say anything negative—fearful that if the candidate doesn’t get the job, it could have negative consequences on the reference’s career and relationship with the candidate. So many take a politician’s approach: they are generally positive and will downplay or avoid discussing anything that might be compromising.
  • With the right questions and line of conversation as well as an ability to glean the real message, you’ll get the valuable answers you need to make your hiring decision. You won’t get everything, but you’ll get enough.
  • As a hiring manager, if you want to get the most out of a candidate’s references, you need to run the process from front to back.

With a greater understanding of these reference check realities, you can manage your expectations and be better prepared as you create a winning plan to extract the most valuable information about your candidate.

Part 2 of this question (my next post) will take you through the framework for conducting an effective reference check: The best approach and the (specific) questions to ask—to get you the answers you need … and deserve.

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.