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How to Get the Most Out of Your Reference Checks

How to Get the Most Out of Your Reference Checks

 

By Kathleen Yazbak, Viewcrest Advisors

 

Checking references is a critical step toward making your final hiring decision and setting up your new leader for success in your mission-driven organization.

Most hiring organizations underestimate the helpful information you can obtain from reference checks if you both ask and listen carefully. By speaking with former colleagues, you’ll have insights to add to your hiring decision that you and your colleagues won’t get from interviews. You’re looking not just for things that will rule in (or out) a candidate but for something that will help you make distinctions among candidates or will help ensure that the person you pick will be positioned to succeed with your organization.

Though in some cases you might only conduct a reference check on your clear first choice (or even in parallel to your offer being delivered), in other cases, it might make sense to request references for more than one finalist. Information from the reference check may elevate a finalist to “the” leading candidate position and/or help you think from the start about how to best support and develop a future colleague. If you request references from multiple finalists, please be transparent with those finalists: let them know they are one of several finalists (ideally sharing how many finalists with whom you’re engaged). Candidates are asking busy people to speak on their behalf; you don’t want your process to be too imposing. To have learning and due diligence be considered reciprocal, a finalist could perhaps have 1:1 time with someone they met in your organization during the process to learn even more.

Establishing trust with each reference is critical for getting answers below the surface. The person giving the reference needs to know that you are invested in making sure this is a good fit for both the organization and the individual. To do so, you need to spend time upfront with the reference to introduce yourself and explain the specific opportunity (ideally confidentially sharing the job description in advance). Though you’re clearly looking for specific information, you may find that references are more forthcoming when the process feels like a conversation.

Taking insightful references on prospective employees is essential, but how do you get started? You can either have a third party take references for your candidate or conduct the references internally.

Either way, it is helpful to contact several references–ideally three to five for senior-level candidates–to gather both:

  • Hard Data – Confirmation of the candidate’s track record, skills, and competencies, including information about the candidate's role within the organization, specific responsibilities, and performance.
  • Qualitative Data – Tangible examples that allow you to understand better the candidate’s management and communication style, track record, and strengths and areas for improvement, including more qualitative questions about the individual’s style, interpersonal interactions, adaptability, and approach to work.

Your goal in conducting references is to speak with individuals who have known and worked with the candidate, ideally for an extended period of time and when possible in different settings. When asking for a reference list, you should suggest that candidates provide references that include those with whom they have had varied interactions: peers, direct reports, bosses, and individuals external to their organizations with whom they worked fairly closely (e.g., a vendor, a client, or a partner in a collaboration). Speaking with this broad list of people should provide a rounded view.

Confidentiality

Reference checking has its own set of confidentiality and legal issues. You must always get permission from the candidate before taking references. Most organizations’ standard employment applications have specific language as a release permitting you to check both named and unnamed references and conduct credit and background checks, and you cannot legally start that process until they do. In addition, your notes from a referencing conversation are not to be shared. Instead, write up a summary of each reference check to share with the full search committee. To protect the reference giver, do not attribute sources of specific quotes or comments and destroy notes once the referencing report is written. Note that candidates can request a copy of the reference report and any stored information in their files. And, of course, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines on discriminatory questions for interviews apply to reference checks as well. 

If possible, avoid questions that elicit a “yes” or “no” response. Instead, focus on open-ended questions and allow the reference to describe events, accomplishments, and challenges. Ask for examples and explanations. Listening carefully and drilling down below the surface of initial comments will make a reference truly useful. For instance, if someone notes that a candidate was a great manager but didn’t get along well with the CEO, you might ask, “Is that unusual in the organization?” or “How did the candidate work to make that relationship productive?”

It is essential to listen to the overall comments a reference makes and the specific word choices, the tone, and the enthusiasm with which the reference describes the candidate. If they make a comment that seems unclear, ask a follow-up question. Keep your antennae up for shifts in tone, pauses, or hesitations that might indicate that you’ve hit a sensitive or troublesome subject. Acknowledge the shift, be willing to follow up, and, most importantly, probe the source. Also, keep an ear out for overly enthusiastic references without sufficient depth of examples to back up the praise.

Many organizations turn to professional third parties for reference checks. Why? Professional recruiters can gather information objectively that allows the organization to benchmark the candidate’s skills and personal qualities against the job description. In addition, while candidates generally do not offer references who would not give glowing testimonials, professional recruiters have extensive personal and professional networks that often allow the organization to benefit from references that the candidate has not named. Furthermore, as professional recruiters tend to do reference checks much more frequently than any given nonprofit leader, their expertise and comfort in making reference calls may help get the most out of each one.

Sample Reference Check Questions

Several sample questions are listed below. The person offering the reference will tailor their responses to what is most relevant if you first give a sense of the position and what would be expected of the candidate. You may also tailor questions to specific areas you’d like to probe about each candidate or to how they would respond to particular aspects of the job under consideration.

Though it is helpful to have some sample questions and other written prompts ready, reading directly from a list of questions may set an unnecessarily formal tone. Do your best to make the person giving a reference feel like they are having a natural, flowing conversation. Make sure to ask consistent questions should you be taking references on more than one candidate. Lastly, prioritize well for the time you’ll be allotted.

Sample questions include:

Opening the conversation

  • Please tell me a bit about yourself and how you know [Candidate]? (How long, in what context? How often were you in contact, etc.?)

General impressions

  • How would you characterize your experience working with [Candidate]?

Achievements

  • What impact has [Candidate] had on the organization? In their department?
  • What are their most significant accomplishments or critical contributions to the organization (examples)?
  • How does this person compare with other executives in similar positions in your organization or comparable organizations?
  • What kind of legacy did [Candidate] leave?

Leadership skills

  • How would you describe [Candidate]’s style of leadership?
  • How visionary? Examples?
  • How have they been able to increase the visibility of the organization?
  • How creative is [Candidate] in building resources and diversifying funding? What specific fundraising work have you seen them do?

Strategic thinking

  • What involvement did [Candidate] have in developing the strategic plan for the department or organization? What specifically did they contribute?
  • How has [Candidate] demonstrated their strategic thinking ability? Examples?

Management style

  • How would you characterize [Candidate]’s general management style? (e.g., authoritative, consultative, taskmaster, etc.)?
  • How does [Candidate] draw the best out of all team members?
  • How does [Candidate] go about managing up?
  • What type of work environment do you think best suits [Candidate]’s work style?
  • How would [Candidate] ’s direct reports describe their management style? Supervisors?
  • How does [Candidate] go about making tough decisions? (Inclusive? Fair? Abrupt? Random?)

Operational effectiveness

  • Please describe their operational and (if relevant) financial management abilities.
  • What types of policies, procedures, or processes did [Candidate] implement?

Interpersonally

  • How does [Candidate] deal with conflict? How rigid or flexible are they?
  • How did you see them grow while you were working together?
  • How well does [Candidate] build consensus among constituents with differing opinions or interests?
  • Examples?

Inclusivity

  • What does [Candidate] do to support and foster belonging?
  • How has [Candidate] added the most to the attainment of equity and inclusion goals?

Internal and external communication skills

  • How would you describe [Candidate]’s communication skills: verbal and written?
  • How well does [Candidate] listen? How does [Candidate] engage people?
  • How did [Candidate] keep their supervisors, direct reports, peers, etc., updated? What methods did they use?

Areas for development and support

  • Given that no one is perfect and everyone has areas to improve, can you describe any areas [Candidate] can or should continue to develop?
  • Can you tell me how this trait has impacted [Candidate] or the rest of the team from what you have shared? Do you see any liabilities or downsides to [Candidate] taking this position?
  • What have been [Candidate]’s biggest professional challenges? How did they overcome them? Examples?
  • If you were to do an appraisal on [Candidate], what would their development objectives be?
  • What would you see as the ideal position for them? Why?
  • Where does [Candidate] need the most support?

Closing

  • Is there anything else that I should know about before moving [Candidate] forward in the process?
  • Why did [Candidate] leave the company?
  • Would you hire or work with [Candidate] again? Why/why not?
  • Is there anyone else you could recommend as a reference who might have seen [Candidate] from a different angle?
  • Thank you so much for your help and insight. Do you mind if I contact you again if I have additional questions?

Again, it is critical that anyone conducting a reference avoid discriminatory questions and use and report on the information gathered in a legally acceptable manner. Work closely with your Talent/H.R. team and external counsel on all aspects of background checks. 

 


This article is an updated version of an article initially published on Bridgespan.org. Impact Opportunity would like to thank Kathleen Yazbak for her work in writing and updating this article. Kathleen is the Founder and President of Viewcrest Advisors an executive search firm that identifies transformative leaders who build organizations that deliver ambitious social outcomes.