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Lynch on Hiring, Part II:The Importance of Reference Check Interviews

Reference Check Interviews are a vital step in the hiring process, and many employers conduct this step poorly, if at all. My firm recommendation is that reference checks must be conducted before any hiring decisions are made. No reference check interviews = No job offer. It’s that simple.

As I have written previously, when hiring for any role in your company, it is vital that you follow a proven process. That’s where the Topgrading methodology made a huge difference for me. I learned to follow a disciplined hiring methodology to significantly increase my chances of hiring A-Players for every role.

I define an A-Player as a person who consistently achieves the agreed standard for RESULTS in their role, and who consistently demonstrates BEHAVIORS aligned to the Core Values.

In essence, there are 2 dimensions to an employee’s performance. RESULTS + BEHAVIORS. Both requirements must be met consistently to be considered an A-Player.

You take hiring shortcuts at your peril. Hiring is too important to get wrong!

Above view of young consultant shaking hands with her client

Positioning the reference checks

Last week, I outlined the 5 step hiring process I recommend. If you follow the process correctly, you will have prepared the candidate to expect a robust reference check process.

In Step 2, the Career History Form, you indicated that you will require full reference checks and that you will choose the referees you wish to contact (which are not necessarily the names of the advocates they put forward on their resume). A-Players have nothing to hide and will have no problems with this.

In Step 3, the Phone Interview, you asked them about their previous managers using the following questions:

What was the name of the manager you worked with at company X?

If I was to ask what you were good at professionally what would they say?

If I was to ask what you were NOT so good at professionally what would they say?


In Step 4, the Face to Face Tandem Interview, you reinforce that you are truly serious about reference checks. You do not offer any candidate the role during the interview, no matter how much you like them. Reference checks must be conducted before any decisions are made  

So you conclude the face to face interview by asking the candidate:

If we were to proceed, the next step is to conduct reference checks. I would like your permission and assistance to put us in touch with the following people (list the names of the past supervisors/employees YOU want to speak with, not necessarily the names they provide on their resume). Are you good with this?  

You ask the candidate to set up the interviews for you. They contact the people you nominate,  make the introduction, and give the referee their permission to speak with you. A-Players will have no problem with this. This step also helps to overcome the “my old company doesn’t give references” objection.

If there are any past “issues” they might have had with the people you name, they are now likely to surface during the interview, and these issues should be probed so you learn the truth. A clash with a past supervisor doesn’t necessarily disqualify a person, but it is important that you dig into it and learn the facts so you can make your own assessment as to how much weight you place on it.

Conducting the reference check interviews

I want to see if what the referee says matches up with what the candidate put on their career history form and what they told me during the face to face tandem interview. My reference checks typically contain the following questions:

In what context did you work with this person?

To confirm what the working relationship was, and what people's actual roles, titles and reporting lines were

What date did they start? What date did they finish?

Can you please clarify for me exactly what their role was, and what they were accountable for?

What was their starting salary? What was their ending salary?

What would you say they were good at professionally?

Keep this question open. Don’t prompt.

What were their areas for improvement?

This is where you do actually prompt them. If you are not getting any concrete feedback or real honest information, you can try mentioning a weakness the candidate stated in their previous interviews. i.e.: (Candidate) told me that they don’t like confronting people about poor performance and that you might mention this as an area requiring improvement. Can you tell me more about this?

What were their reasons for leaving this role?

One of our Core Values is (state core value), can you give me an example of where they demonstrated this behavior at your company? (repeat for each core value)

How did you rate their overall performance? How did they rate compared to others in the same role?

Very important: The Hiring manager must conduct the reference interviews. Never delegate or outsource this step. Sometimes what is not said by the referee is just as important as what is said. You need to be an active participant in the conversation and hear the tone for yourself.

Reference check interviews should be thorough. That can be very enlightening. Many times it has shed new information which has led me to reject candidates that I was close to hiring. Thank goodness too!  I’d far rather cast the net out again, than go through the cost, hassle, and heartache of trying to fix my hiring mistake and performance manage an unsuitable person out of the business.

Having difficulty contacting referees?

I learned this tip from my friend and fellow consultant, Sturdy Mckee:

If the candidate has not done a good job of booking these reference interviews for you, call the referee at a time when you know they will not be available and leave a message:

I am interviewing (candidate) for (role) at our company and they indicated that you would be able to give an honest reference as to their ability to perform such a role. Please call me back on (number) if you think they would be an excellent candidate. If you don't call me back, I will take that as your answer.

Let the candidate know which referees did and did not call you back.

I have not tried Sturdy’s approach yet, but it sounds intriguing.

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Stephen Lynch

Author of the award winning business book Business Execution for RESULTS & President of RESULTS.com, Lynch is an internationally known Strategy Consultant and a contributing writer for The Economist magazine.

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