How to Read Between the Lines

By Alan Darling

-Originally published in Your Company Magazine (now Fortune Small Business).

Many employers believe checking the references of job candidates is a waste of time. The reason: Previous supervisors given as references often withhold negative information, fearing lawsuits. But if you treat the calls as interviews, you may be able to get a much clearer picture

Do reference checks as soon as you’re down to your last two or three candidates. If you wait too long, the process becomes simply a formality before hiring.

When contacting prior employers, “don’t announce, ‘This is a reference check,’ and then ask questions, bang, bang, bang,” says Kimball Shaw, of Kimball Shaw Associates, an executive-search firm in Hingham, Massachusetts. “Chat about the job you have open, ask how they know the applicant, and ask a few questions about their companies.”

If you hope to make an offer to the candidate should the references be positive, or if the individual is one of your top choices, say so. It will stress the importance of the information you’re trying to elicit.

Ask specific questions. “What’s she like when she’s made a mistake and has to correct it?” and “How does she act when someone senior to her is wrong and won’t give in?” are better than, “What’s she like?” Toward the end of the conversation, ask about weak points, but not directly. Instead, ask whether the former employer would hire the person again. Or say, “It looks like I’m going to make an offer to this woman. In what areas will I have to work extra hard with her to make sure she succeeds?” For a more detailed list of questions that can be used in reference checking, see Questions For Reference Checks at the end of this article.

Wilson Kile, a marketing consultant in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, recommends listening for what references don’t say. “If you’re verifying what your applicant claimed was a positive situation and you get a hesitant response, watch out,” he warns.

In addition to the names you’re given, ask both the prospective employee and his or her initial references for the names of others who can shed light on the candidate. Then call these secondary references and interview them.


Questions for Reference Checks

Remember to set the reference source up properly. Spend a few minutes getting to know the person, and about his contact with the candidate. Then make it clear that you’re very interested in this candidate. Try something like, “I’ve met with him, and I’m very, very interested in him. He’s one of two finalists for this position.”

Start off with a positive question: “What do you like about him?” or “What did you like about working with her?”

Then ask some leading questions, such as the following:

  • What is he really like?
  • What’s he like under pressure?
  • What’s he like when he makes a mistake, or when he really screws something up?
  • How has he dealt with it?
  • What kind of things heat her up? (or eat her up?) or What kind of things get her upset?
  • How does she react when she’s upset?
  • What’s he like when the politics don’t go his way?
  • What does he do when a superior – a customer or a boss, for example – is wrong as hell, and really belligerent about it?
  • Don’t tell me just the good stuff – I’ve met with him, and I know he’s a good guy.
  • Why do you think he wants to leave?
  • What’s the atmosphere like at his current company?
  • If you hired him for this position, where would you work hardest with him to make sure he succeeds?
  • Let’s imagine that it’s a year from now, and you and I are sitting down and having a beer right now. I hired him a year ago, and it’s not working out. What do you think happened?

Add to this a list of your own questions, particularly on the areas where you suspect where the candidate may be weak, and work those in towards the end, after the referee has warmed up to you.

Remember, when you get a general statement, ask for something more specific. For example, “You said he’s really good at defusing a situation. Can you give me an example of a time when he did that?”

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