Reference Checking: Adding Value and Averting Disaster

By Pepper de Callier

Conducting a competent, thorough reference is a critical element in making the right hiring decision.  The purpose of a reference is to determine a candidate’s likelihood for success in a given position with specific needs, challenges, and a specific corporate culture based upon the candidate’s past accomplishments and demonstrations of behavior and skills.  It’s a simple premise: the best way to predict success is to identify success in someone’s background as it relates to your specific need.

No matter what your particular style of referencing is, there are three tenets of conducting a reference check that will greatly enhance the quality of information you get and, correspondingly, add value.

The first tenet of reference checking is dedication to finding the truth, even if it doesn’t coincide with what you want to believe.  This can be difficult if you feel you’ve gotten to know the person during an interview.  Be thorough and fully develop information. Don’t be in a hurry to validate a preconceived notion, good or bad.

The second tenet is consistency.  There is only one way to do this: all your questions should be written out.  This doesn’t mean you can’t follow a new piece of information that is being developed in your conversation.  It does mean, however, that nothing will distract you from covering the important points that need to be covered to develop a thorough understanding of the candidate.

The third tenet is never ask open-ended questions in search of specific information.  Open-ended questions are good ice-breakers but they typically reveal little in the way of quality information.  Generally, the reference is expecting your call and has already scripted a response and I intentionally get that out of the way early in our conversation.  In fact, I will use phrases or words the reference uses in their scripted reference such as “team builder” or “bottom-line driven” as lead-ins to very specific close-ended questions later on in our discussion.

The best way to fashion your close-ended questions is to focus on the key elements of the position’s requirements and build questions around them.  Let’s say, for example, you are looking for someone who has turned-around a high-volume manufacturing business. In this case, I would ask a reference the following question, “One of the things we’re looking for in someone is turnaround experience in a high-volume manufacturing environment.  What is the best example of this that you have witnessed in Jan’s background?”  This question must be answered with specific information—either they have seen it or they haven’t.  Then, drill down further.  What kind of situation was it exactly?  What specifically was Jan’s role?  What key elements of the turnaround did he lead—driving sales and marketing; restructuring operations; or getting the financial piece in order?  Again, after an answer, drill down to the next level.  “You say he led the sales and marketing piece, how did he do that?  Was he more strategic or tactical in his approach? 

Is it important for this person to have team-building skills?  If so, my request of the reference would be, “Please tell me where you’ve seen Petra build a strong team, which achieved stretch goals.” Again, specificity is the key and drilling down to the next level is critical.  “How did she build the team (fire everybody and hire new people; get people proper training; or after interviewing team members, reassign people to roles where they were better suited and more happy)?  How did she motivate the team to excel (by building consensus, getting buy-in and mutually agreed upon timelines or did she threaten people)?  How did she communicate with the team (style, frequency, method)?

Are you looking for someone who is energized by challenges and is a creative problem solver?  Then, my question would be a two-parter because I want the reference to maintain focus: “Eva, we are looking for a leader who is energized by challenge.  What is the best example of this behavior you have witnessed in Petr?”  Then drill down.  Next question: “Creative problem solving as a personal trait is very high on our list.  What’s the best example of this ability in Petr’s background?”  Then, you guessed it: drill down.

Here are three of my favorite questions to ask at the end of a reference:
“What advice would you give to Petra’s next boss?”
“If we wanted to make Radek a “10”—a perfect candidate for the position and challenge I just described—what would we want to further develop in him?” (Hint: If there is nothing that can be developed you do not have a good reference—nobody’s perfect—keep digging.)
“Is there anything I haven’t asked you about Jan that I should?”

Now you’re ready to add real value.

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at

*These are reprints from Pepper de Callier‘s newspaper column in Hospodarske noviny.
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