10 Steps to Effective Reference Checks

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You interview a candidate that you feel is a great fit for a role. You then ask her for some references, which she immediately delivers to you. You make the calls and learn that she is everything that you hoped; the reference confirms what a superstar employee she was and says that they would hire her back in a minute if they could.

So what did you really find out about her? The answer: nothing that will help you determine if she is a good fit for your role and organization.

I get asked all the time if checking references is even worthwhile, because who would give you a reference that would not say anything but good things about them? Well amazingly, I have checked references where they did not say positive things about the person, but that is very rare. The problem with reference checks is the same problem with interviewing: most people don't know what questions they should be asking. If you know what questions to ask, then reference checks can be extremely helpful. Here is the approach I utilize that typically reveals a lot about the person and if they will be a good fit.

1) Before you check references, make sure you have the candidate complete a personality profile so that you can identify their Three Primary Traits. These include: 

    1. How a person thinks and makes decisions
    2. How she communicates
    3. What her work pace is

To learn more about the Three Primary Traits, read my post, The Three Critical Strengths of High-Performing Consultative Salespeople.

 2) Start off by thanking the reference for their time and how much you appreciate     them taking a few minutes to talk with you about Sue Smith, who provided them as a reference. This may sound basic, but too many people skip this. It is absolutely critical to set the tone, relax the person, and get them to open up.

3) Tell them that you already know that Sue is a Superstar and that you are NOT calling them to learn more about that. 

4) Explain to them that you are seriously considering hiring Sue and the reason for your call is to understand how best to work with her.

5) Tell them the first thing you would like to ask about is how Sue makes decisions. Is she a fast or slow decision maker? Would you say she is more hands-on and tactical or more big picture and strategic? Ask if they could give you an example of a decision she made and how it turned out. Ask if they would say she was independent or more of a collaborator? Then be quiet, listen, and take notes.

6) Ask them to share with you how best to communicate with her. Does she like to do the social thing before getting down to business, or does she prefer a more direct, factual approach? Ask if this is any different when communicating with her via email compared with communicating in-person. Then be quiet, listen, and take notes. This will tell you a lot about Sue's style of interacting with people and how she will fit in with you and your team--or not. 

7) Ask about her work pace. Does Sue have a fast, pro-active pace, or is she more methodical and process-oriented?

8) Ask if there is anything else they can share with you that would be helpful to know about working with Sue. 

9) Thank them for their time and for sharing.

10) After you hang up the phone, compare the reference's responses with Sue's Personality Profile and determine if there is alignment and consistency, which will help confirm the validity of her responses and therefore, how predictable her behavior will be and what you can expect.

As I stated, this process can reveal a lot about Sue and if she will be a good fit for the role and your organization. I would love to hear other effective questioning that you utilize for checking references, so please share them with us.

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