Deep Background

Advisor TodayUse references to reveal insights into job candidates.

By: Debra Woog and Nicole Moss

Reference checking is an essential step toward minimizing risk in the hiring process. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that a mere half of U.S. employers ever speak with the references supplied by job candidates. Comprehensive reference checking provides important opportunities not only to learn more about candidates, but also to evangelize your company, impress your candidates, and even develop new business.

How well can you really know a person by talking on the telephone and even meeting face to face? In some cases, not all that well. One recruiter said he and a hiring team recently identified a seemingly exemplary candidate, only to find by checking references that the candidate had a history of sexual harassment–including an active restraining order filed against him by a current colleague. One bad hire has the potential to ruin your company, so it pays to conduct adequate due diligence before selecting a person to join your organization.

Select your references

The best sources of information, aside from the candidate, are former supervisors, colleagues and direct reports. Your candidate should supply you with detailed information regarding their chosen references including name, title, company, telephone number and relationship to the candidate. Also take advantage of your network by talking to individuals who can supply further insight into the candidate.

However, it is not advisable to do so-called “stealth reference checking” by contacting individuals at the candidate’s current and/or former places of employment. Should the candidate discover this additional check, he will probably perceive this as a lack of trust, and will also be understandably concerned about jeopardizing his professional relationships and even his current job.

These feelings could be difficult to overcome in developing a strong working relationship, should you decide to actually hire the candidate. Besides, “stealth” reference checks seldom produce insights that you can’t gather by adequately interviewing a candidate’s personally selected references.

Prepare your questions

Some hiring organizations seek only to verify a candidate’s former place(s) of employment. A fraction of companies, concerned about accusations of defamation, cautiously prohibit managers from disseminating information other than dates of employment. In fact, a recruiter is entitled to ask past employers anything not protected by equal protection laws that relates to a candidate’s ability to do a job.

An indispensable tool

Interviewing a candidate’s references is the most revealing, yet least well-utilized selection practice. Take advantage of this low-cost opportunity to gather information.

Identify what you really want to know about the candidate in order to make a hiring decision. Then, using those goals as a guide, prepare questions framed so they are likely to be answered in detail, and design follow-up questions that encourage each reference to give specifics behind his or her original answers. To get you started, here are a few examples.

  1. When you want to know: Can this candidate do the job?

    Ask: Did this candidate meet your expectations in fulfilling her job duties?

    This is a great blanket question because it addresses a candidate’s ability to do the same or similar job. Past success or failure is usually predictive of success in the future. This question gets the reference to explain the specifics of a previous position and relate the candidate’s performance to each element.

    Drill down by asking about the expectations or goals of the candidate’s position. Inquire about the candidate’s level of performance and whether the candidate simply met expectations or exceeded expectations. You are looking for a performer, so listen for a strong endorsement of her ability to understand the job and meet its demands.

    Ask: How did this candidate handle X, Y and Z? (Fill in the blanks with two or three key responsibilities of the job)?

    Select three key issues, responsibilities that must be understood completely and accomplished in an exemplary manner to achieve success in the role. Focus your inquiry around these responsibilities. Answers to specific questions about these qualities will tell you how successful your candidate has been in the past at dealing with the challenges you expect him to face in your company.

    Ask: Do any of this candidate’s achievements stand out for you? How did these impact the company or department?

    You want to hire an achievement-oriented person. Not only should the reference remember the achievement, he or she should be able to supply you with perceptions such as, “we were really proud of her, she topped sales for the department and for the state,” or, “he took the initiative here, and it was noticed by senior management.” Listen for comments colleagues make about employees who go the extra mile.

  2. When you want to know: Will this candidate be easy to get along with?

    Ask: How would you characterize this candidate’s relationships with her supervisor/ peers/ direct reports?

    Will your candidate be a daily source of positive energy or a drain on morale? How your candidate’s supervisors, peers and direct reports perceived her, reacted to her, and worked with her is indicative of how your staff may interact with her. Candidates usually present their people skills in the best possible light during an interview process. By probing about a candidate’s relationships over time, you may establish a more accurate picture of the person.

  3. When you want to know: Will this candidate be a team player?

    Ask: Tell me about a time when you noticed this candidate went above and beyond for the benefit of the team, demonstrated a high level of commitment to a project, or overcame large obstacles to complete a project.

    You not only want your candidate to be a team player and meet expectations, you want him to go above and beyond. Is he a dedicated employee or perhaps focused on employee development as a manager? Of course, these simple questions evoke strong “yes” responses, but digging deeper will give you a better sense of the extent to which your candidate embodies these values. If the reference can not think of any stories to answer this question, you may be getting a red flag that your candidate is not a team player or does just enough to get by without ever going the extra mile.

  4. When you want to know: Does this candidate have bad habits you should know about?

    Ask: What are some areas this candidate could improve upon?

    Begin this one by acknowledging that no one is perfect, and everyone has areas to work on. In addition to the actual answer, listen for the area the reference chooses to focus on. Did the weakness pertain to maturity, inexperience, interpersonal skills or ability? The importance of the area is whether an improvement can be made, and what caused the weakness in the first place. Stronger candidates may be weak in skills that they have not had the opportunity to develop.

    Be wary of candidates who should have improved this weakness by this time. Another mark of strong candidates is that they are often aware and focused on improving the weakness.

Reference checking is an often undervalued tool for gaining other perspectives on a candidate before you make a hiring decision. Although the preparation requires extra effort, the investment in making a good hiring decision is worth the time spent. Don’t miss this opportunity to gain important insights into your candidate’s performance history, interpersonal skills and capacity to make a contribution to the team.

Debra Woog, based in the Boston area, is principal of connect2 Corporation ( and coaches leaders to be expert managers. She can be contacted at 781-646-5689 or at

Nicole Moss provides emerging companies with recruiting consulting services through her company Blueprint. She can be reached at