Julie Brush. Julie Brush.

Speaking with a candidate’s references provides an employer with a unique opportunity to gain more insight into the person they’re about to hire. But many employers don’t see it this way. Their referencing experience has given them a different opinion—based on unhelpful vanilla, cookie-cutter feedback and in some cases, no feedback at all. In Part 2 of this question, I will examine the best approach to take—before the reference call occurs …

… Because maximizing value from a candidate reference starts before the call is ever made—by building a foundation for success. Below is where an employer should start.

Conduct the Reference Check Yourself.

If you are the hiring manager and want to maximize a candidate reference, you need to conduct the reference call yourself. I understand that hiring managers are busy. But you know this role better than anyone. You know what you want and you know what you need. And you know the candidate profile that will succeed. So you are the best person suited to peel the onion on this candidate’s past. The stakes are high, so commit the effort.

Be Clear About the References You Want.

Provide candidates with specific guidance upfront about the number and type of professional references you want them to provide. This will increase the likelihood that you’ll have relevant and high quality references to tap. The best: a current boss, current clients and current peers. But that’s not likely. Next best: a former boss, former peers, former clients and anyone with whom the candidate has worked closely. Forget about personal references (unless she is someone famous you’d like to talk to). The praise will be universally effusive … and universally unhelpful.

Be Prepared.


The effectiveness of your reference discussion will hinge on how prepared you are going in to the call. Here’s what you should know beforehand:

  1. What are the most important qualities (substantive, experience, cultural) a candidate must possess in order for you to hire him/her for this position?
  2. What have you learned about this candidate to date? How does he or she stack up in the areas above? Are there any concerns? If so, what are they? Is there still information you want/need to know about this candidate?
  3. What are your goals for the reference call? What do you want to learn, understand, validate? Be specific.
  4. What questions are you going to ask in order to achieve your goals? (Part 3 will cover specific question samples).

Take the Time.

The more time you spend with a candidate reference, the more you will learn. There’s no way you’ll gain any meaningful insight in a 15-minute call. So book 30-45 minutes for each conversation. Minimum.

Once you’ve created the foundation, you’ll be ready for a productive call. In Part 3, I will provide a recommended strategy once you’re engaged in the conversation. And will also offer several specific questions to ask in order to extract the most revealing information about your desired hire.

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.