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21 Jun '12

Meaningful reference checks for potential hires

Posted by T.J. Addington in hiring

Any of us who lead teams or organizations need to do reference checks from time to time as we bring on new staff. For most, one of the last steps is that of checking references but too often we don't take this step as seriously as we ought to. In fact, in two instances in recent years, two of my staff members were hired away by others without talking to those who could have given them candid feedback. In both of these cases, it was not a good fit for the other organization. Had they asked we could have saved them some pain as the issues were known to us.


In looking for references we ought to look for people who know the candidate well, works or has worked with them and who can give objective feedback rather than simply give their friend a thumbs up. The more one trusts the one giving feedback the more confidence one has in the information shared.


A word of caution when checking references for a potential hire. When one gets to the reference stage we are usually very much wanting the hire to go through. Thus we can be tempted to gloss over concerns we hear in our desire to fill the position. All of us, however, are made up of strengths, weaknesses, along with a dark side. Knowing the most about your potential hire, positive and negative will give you the best means to both evaluate the hire and to manage the individual once hired.


Asking the right questions in order to elicit the information you need is critical. Here are some of the questions that I have often used


I will share the position the potential hire will fill and then ask, "where do you see this as a fit and where might there not be a fit given what you have observed over the years?"


Would you hire or rehire this person?


Would you want to work for this person? Why?


How would you describe the strengths and weaknesses of this individual? What would you describe as their dark side?


How have you seen this individual negotiate conflict or differences of opinion?


How would you describe their leadership style? 


In group settings, what role do they play? Are they better working collaboratively with others or doing work by themselves?


What can you tell me about the health of this individuals family relationships?


What personal or professional growth have you seen in this individual in the past five years?


This individuals largest challenge in this role will be....?


Would you describe this individual as:
          Defensive or non defensive
          Open about themselves or closed
          Easily angered or almost never angered
          Optimistic or pessimistic
          Self aware or unaware
          Well liked or not well liked
          Disciplined or scattered
          Empathetic or unempathetic
          Collaborative or non-collaborative
          Authoritarian or collegial in relationships
          Patient or impatient
          Gracious or lacking grace
          Diplomatic or undiplomatic
          Flexible or non-flexible
          Controllers or empowerers


Are there any questions you think I should have asked but didn't?


Do you have any red flags that I should know of?


What is the strongest reason you think I should hire this individual for this role?