How to Get Useful and Honest Information from Your Reference Checks

May 18, 2015

Reference checks. It seems like a simple enough process. You talk to a few colleagues to find out about a candidate’s prior work experience, before sealing the deal and making an offer.

But when it comes to hiring, nothing is ever that simple. “There is definitely an art to it,” explains Paul Barada, who has been busy checking references for over 30 years with his company Barada Associates and penned the book, How to Find out Everything You Need to Know about Anyone.

Contrary to what people believe, “we’re not looking to find dirt on anyone,” he says. “At the very essence, we’re trying to get a handle on whether someone’s prior skills and responsibilities are a good fit for a new job.”

Here are Barada’s seasoned tips for exersizing flawless reference checks:

1. Use the rule of 3

“Talking to a total of three people is ideal,” says Barada. “The idea is to look at the candidate from different points of view - from above, laterally and from below - because the way a candidate interacts with his boss may be entirely different from how he interacts with somebody who reports to him.”

Barada shares that unless you’re checking references for a CEO–in which case, you’re going to do a lot more than three—you really only need three. “If you speak to more than three, it’s going to get repetitious,” he shares. “Less than three and you may not get an accurate portrayal.”

2. Always ask open-ended questions

Sometimes people who aren’t very experienced at reference checking will ask, “Would you say that her performance was good, fair or poor?” This is a big mistake, Barada cautions. “When you phrase a question that way, you’re limiting the responses that the reference can give you.”

“‘How would you describe the person’s performance,’ is a much better way to phrase the question. Maybe a candidate was amazing, or maybe she was really awful, but you will never find it out with good, fair and poor as the only choices.”

3. Follow up on qualitative answers right away

“The follow up question that we typically ask is as important as the initial question itself,” shares Barada. “If a reference, says, ‘I’d say that Charlie’s performance was outstanding,’ then you want to follow that with, ‘Okay. Could you give me some examples that might illustrate how his performance was so spectacular?'”

“If the person says, ‘I can’t really think of anything that illustrates that’, then I begin to wonder how outstanding the performance really was.” In this case, perhaps somebody is inflating his or her assessment of the candidate.

4. Give the reference license to be honest

What you’re really shooting for is to get honest answers. In order to lead references in that direction, Barada asks basic performance questions first, but eventually gets to more challenging questions.

His favorite approach to the subject of a candidate’s weakness is: “With the understanding that nobody’s perfect, if you had to identify an area that was not as strong, a deficiency or a weakness, or even a short coming, what would you say?”

“That question doesn’t sound very threatening,” he says. Another variation is to ask, “If you could change anything about Charlie, in terms of his job performance, what would it be?”

5. Solicit their best career advice for the candidate

Barada finds that professionals like offering advice, so he often asks them to do so in the form of: “What does Charlie need to do next to advance his career at this point?” Barada has seen this question catch people off guard, where they may offer information that’s more revealing. During a luke-warm reference check, he says, “I’ve even had people reply, ‘He needs to have a better personality’.”

6. Negative answers do not always mean “no hire”

Not every negative reference results in a candidate not being offered a job. There are times that Barada turns in unfavorable material and a company will still hire the candidate.

In one case, Barada was checking references for a client hiring a much-needed sound engineer. When Barada talked to the references, all three told him that the candidate was a solid engineer, but very difficult to get along with.

Instead of turning the candidate down, the company took the feedback and decided to offer the person a job, but also encouraged him to enroll in a Dale Carnegie course, so that he could work on his people skills. “Within a few weeks, the guy realized that his personality was pretty abrasive,” says Barada, “and he learned how to deal with people in a positive, constructive way. Eventually, he was promoted to manager of the engineering function.”

7. Make it about the greater good

In the end, you just want to encourage references to tell the truth, says Barada. Because if they inflate someone’s ability or experience, in the long run, they’re going to wind up hurting that person who may be hired for a job they aren’t equipped to handle.

“Ultimately, we’re not trying to trip up references and make them say things that they wished they hadn’t,” Barada explains. “All we want references to do is to be honest. That’s all you can hope for, from a reference, is that they will be honest with you, and that’s why you never talk to just one.”

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