Don’t Ignore References – They Can Make All the Difference

Poor hiring decisions have huge direct and hidden costs – aside from the time and money invested in attracting talent, the impact of a poor fit affects productivity, morale and collaboration. One of the best sources of discerning information about candidates comes from speaking with references before making a final offer. However, a lot of hiring managers throw up their hands and seem to be resigned to the “fact” that you can’t get good reference information any more. Yes, it’s harder to find solid references and some people will just flat out refuse, but it’s possible to do so. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

I recall a time when we were assisting a client with the hiring of a VP of Sales. We interviewed the finalists and our client asked if we’d also interview references. Our approach is to ask each candidate to provide at least two, preferably three references in each of several categories: people that you reported to directly; peers; and if relevant, past direct reports. Each candidate was asked to contact their references ahead to let them know that we would be calling them.

Even though the references were provided by the candidates and in most cases the references wanted to be supportive, it’s amazing what you can find out about a person once you engage the reference in giving you specific examples from the candidate’s past performance. With the VP of Sales candidates, we asked some simple questions like:

  1. What do you see as John’s strengths? Can you give me a few examples of how you saw this strength in action while he worked with you?
  2. All of us have blind spots, what were John’s back then? Can you describe a time when you saw this blind spot played out? (Be sure to remain silent for a while to give the reference time to think about this; saying “back then” or “in the past” gives the reference a greater level of comfort in sharing because they are describing a blind spot or weakness from the past and not stating that it is occurring now.)
  3. On a 1-10 scale with one being low and 10 high, how would you rate John on his overall performance on the job? Why? (If you don’t get at least 7s, that’s a danger sign.)

In the questioning, we discovered that John was an excellent salesperson and always made or exceeded quota. However, one of his weaknesses turned out to be managing and coaching others. He didn’t show an aptitude for it when given the chance “back then.” When compared to the other candidates, John turned out to be the wrong fit. No one picked that up from the interviews with John.

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