Reference Checking: Ask Better Questions, Get Better Data

Last Updated Aug 31, 2010 12:10 AM EDT

Groucho: "Now what about references?"
Chico: "You don't need any reference. I like-a your face and that-sa good enough for me."
As we have discussed earlier, people who conduct interviews tend to think of themselves as pretty shrewd customers. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Mining for tangible experience and arriving at a clear picture of a candidate's past performance is never simple or painless. Even when you take the right tissue and fluid samples and have them properly analyzed, connecting the dots -- projecting those results onto another job at a different company so as to accurately predict success -- can put the most accomplished interviewer up against a wall. If it were easy, then everyone would do it all the time...right?

Perhaps the biggest mistake hiring managers make, in very general terms, is to base their decisions on a candidate's personality and presentation: Do I like this person or not? Rather than hunting for tangible evidence of competencies in specific areas, that old reptilian brain kicks in with its evolution-based programming for self-preservation. Is it safe or dangerous to add this one to our group? Who's guarding the offspring? Whom do we eat? No wonder the weaker individual so frequently gets hired.
This comedy of errors will often compound to a ridiculous degree when it comes to reference checks. Rather than looking for relevant insights, we see managers hoping to validate their own perceptions of the candidate; actually leading the witness, as they say in courtroom dramas, by setting up good/bad options in an obvious way. ("Has he demonstrated any aggressive behaviors, particularly during a full moon?")

In response to the standard questions flows a litany of clichés. (How does she handle conflict? In what ways did you see him grow? Describe his management style. What type of boss can you see her working with best?) Oh baby! Lifeless, passive and uninsightful. The reference checker rarely "drives the car" in any purposeful direction and we're left on the side of the road never learning about the candidate's true abilities. In the end, what we have is the superficial comments of three or four faceless "others" -- just hum-drum frozen dinners utterly lacking in color, texture or interpretation. We hear what people say about the candidate, but those comments don't reflect any wisdom or fresh perspective. Everything about this process is run-of-the-mill -- as you should expect if references are not asked appropriately meaningful questions -- convenience food at its worst.

We don't realize any conclusions, either. Since there's no scorecard, we don't come away grasping anything about the candidate's limitations or needs. So she's "big picture." Therefore what? You say he doesn't react well to abrasive people? Now that's a revelation. Everyone knows that mean people suck. It's as if the reference had said, "Sometimes he eats and sometimes he sleeps and sometimes he plays golf." But who is he? These observations -- if you could even call them that ­-- land on us with a dull thud...and then lay there like a beached mackerel. Is it any surprise that employees who snap and go on murderous rampages are almost always described, after the fact, as having "got along well with others?" That's the banal voice-over of "references" talking.

So what, exactly, are you after when you ask those same tired reference-check questions? How do you get your witness on a short leash with a choke chain? And if you don't know the reference personally -- her values, judgment, professionalism -- what have you accomplished by hearing her point of view? What's the baseline for your findings?

A couple of thoughts: Get a grip on who you're talking to, for starters. Identify what the nature of that person's association with the candidate was and is. Are they personal friends? Did they work at the same company "together," or did they work together-together? Were they peers, or did one manage the other? Was this person a legitimate stakeholder in your candidate's performance? How tightly wrapped is the reference? Laid back...or perfectionist? Is the reference credible?

Avoid posing questions that can be answered with generalizations. Ask for examples, details and scale. Use a rating system and persist in getting comparisons to others in similar roles. Compare, contrast and compare some more. Numbers are better than letter grades ­-- they're less subjective, somehow. I like the Netflix 1-5 system. Ask for clarification on anything less than a "5". Listen carefully for pauses and awkward silences. Does the candidate have real competencies...or just attributes? Learn what euphemisms are and how to recognize them. Push back. Ask for more examples. Mandates...decisions...consequences, good and bad. Use the word "how" whenever possible. (She split the Red Sea? Really? Please tell me how...and don't leave out anything!)

Know precisely -- not approximately -- what type of information you seek. Make sure you have a copy of the job specification in front of you, including desired objectives and outcomes. Are you planning to mold the job around the person or try and squeeze a person into the job? How much creativity and autonomy is built into this position? Always talk in terms of results...then work backwards to understand strategies and tactics used to achieve them. Make sure you know beyond any reasonable doubt whether, when and under what circumstances the reference might ever want to work with your candidate again. And why.

Now test yourself. Ask the reference if you can call back and review this data once you've organized your notes. If the answer is "No way," you've done a first-rate job. Congratulations.
  • Mark Jaffe

    As President of Wyatt & Jaffe, Mark Jaffe has been called one of the 'World's 100 Most Influential Headhunters' by BusinessWeek magazine. His firm, Wyatt & Jaffe, works with a select list of financial services, high-tech and consumer companies worldwide and has been called one of the 50 leading retained search firms in North America.

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