The art, science, and labor of recruiting: Reference checking

Aim to conduct references with those names provided by the candidate, in addition to unsolicited references. It is often easy to ask a given reference “who would have a different or less positive view of the candidate?” or “who did not get along with/agree with them?” Ask for specific references – last boss, employee who has worked with the candidate the longest (maybe even went with them to another company), their toughest peer they worked with, etc.

It’s simply too important to leave reference checking to a recruiter. I suggest you and your team conduct references and have a list of areas you want to double check. Each reference will be able to attest to only certain issues and be sure to assess who is qualified to give you an opinion and on which aspects of the candidate.

I often ask for three types of references (both for roles in which they performed well and performed poorly): peers, bosses, and employees who worked for the candidate.


When asking reference questions:

  • People tend to give polite, generally good references. Dig deeply and indirectly. Look for what the referrer doesn’t want to talk about. Respectfully get beyond the standard responses. Also look to characterize the kind of person the referee is. Is he always positive or always negative? How hard a grader? Polite or honest? 
  • How does the candidate compare with other employees? Is the candidate the smartest person on that group? Ask for examples and force them to show versus tell. It is easy for a referrer to say “he is smart” or “aggressive” but harder for them to give examples that illustrate the candidate is “smart” or “aggressive” especially relative to others. Lying directly about direct comparison is harder for people.
  • Do the referrers’ opinions coincide with what the candidate believes their own strengths and weaknesses are?
  • Has a referrer kept in touch or had coffee regularly with the candidate? Consider the social skills of a candidate – a candidate who did not keep in touch with a good boss (or worse does not know what they are doing) is signaling something important.
  • Why didn’t they hire the candidate in their next job? Or keep in touch? Think about what the referrer’s actions, not just his words, say about the candidate.
  • Listen for what topics the referrer is not talking about.
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