21 Nov


This week, I have been doing reference checks for two of my clients who are on the verge of making offers to sales management candidates. After working in this industry for over 20 years, I asked myself – “Why am I doing this? Do I still believe in reference checks?” And I answered it for the 100,000th time – “Yes!”… I believe in them if they are done right. A big part of that approach is asking the right questions.

No offense to human resources, but if you contact them, they will tell you the bare bones: dates of employment, title and role, confirmation of salary, and whether they would rehire the candidate. That’s a start, but I’m looking for a lot more information when my client is taking a risk in hiring someone… So, don’t call HR unless you are only looking for the basic information. Also, don’t call more than one co-worker, don’t call their friends and pastors and don’t call just the names they provide.

I prefer to do reference checks with former supervisors. Our method at Blue Octopus is to warm them up so they trust you enough to share more than the basic information in response to our very specific questions. On the call, be genuine, appreciative and succinct. Doesn’t every phone call go a little better when you start out asking them “How are you doing today?” or “Are you ready for the weekend?”? It may sound simple, but warming up the conversation before you start asking the questions is crucial to improving your odds of them truthfully answering all of your questions.

Here are the only questions you need to ask:

  1. Did you hire the candidate? Why? Did he/she proceed to meet your original expectations of why you hired them?
  2. What are the candidate’s three best qualities? How did these strengths specifically benefit your business?
  3. What is one major success or highlight of the candidate’s time working with you?
  4. What would the candidate’s coworkers say about him/her?
  5. Did the candidate excel working independently or with a team?
  6. If you could give their future manager one tip about how they could perform even better, what would it be? Can you name one area where you challenged the candidate to improve?  How did he/she respond to this?
  7. Would you rehire the candidate for that same role – or is he/she better suited for a different position? Should we hire the candidate?
  8. Is there anything else I should take into consideration before recommending to my client that they hire the candidate?

Obviously, you are writing their responses down during the call. Are you also listening for their pauses, breaths, cadence and volume of their responses? I’m no Jedi Knight, but I often learn a lot about their true reaction to the candidate by all the nonverbal cues in between their responses.

We also try to do a reference check with a supervisor that they didn’t provide to us. In the world of LinkedIn and other online information, it’s fairly easy to track these people down. The references they provided are probably their three favorite supervisors – maybe there’s an interesting story to be told by the boss they didn’t recommend that you contact?

The law varies from state to state, so check in with your attorney before doing your next pre-hire reference. Here in Minnesota, the law allows a prospective employer to contact a job applicant’s former employers for a professional reference. Furthermore, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, state law allows a former employer to share negative or unflattering information – and doesn’t limit the content of the former employer’s reference unless the job applicant can show that the employer provided an untrue reference or acted in a malicious manner. However, a hiring decision based on a bad reference due to discrimination might violate state law.

Believe in reference checks – and get the most out of them!

Make every day count!




Facebook: http://on.fb.me/131nqty

Twitter: @drew_schmitz

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