How to Get More Value From Reference Checks

September 7, 2015

Strict reference policies is a growing trend among companies today and many prohibit their employees from providing any meaningful feedback on candidates. But, this doesn’t mean that reference checks have lost their value during the hiring process.

The truth is, no one ever got sued for giving an enthusiastic reference. For example, I recently called a Fortune 50 supply chain executive for a reference check. Right off the bat, he told me that his company had a stringent policy against providing references of any kind. But, he then proceeded to provide me with a glowing reference for the candidate, outlining all the reasons why she was a fantastic leader and would be a great hire. “Technically, I am not supposed to be telling you this,” he said. “But she’s terrific, and I don’t mind telling you that.”

In my experience, if a candidate is genuinely terrific – as a person and as a leader – you will find people across his or her career who will tell you so. Conversely, when I cannot find even a small handful of references who will give me more than her “name, rank, and serial number,” I get concerned.

But sometimes, I have had references for excellent performers who refuse to speak to me. When this happens, I am almost always able to have candidates provide additional references who will talk to me and provide meaningful comments.

For times when you're struggling to get what you need from references, try the following five tactics:

1. Make setting up reference calls the candidate’s job rather than your job.

Have candidates reach out to their references and arrange for people to take your reference calls. This not only saves you time – it is also a helpful barometer of how enthusiastic the references are about your candidate. If they can’t take the time to talk with you for a few minutes about her, how strong of a performer is she really? See Brad Smart’s hiring tome Topgrading for more on this approach to organizing reference calls.

2. Ask references for more references.

If you don’t have a complete picture of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, ask the references with whom you speak, “Who else would have worked closely with this person during her time with your company?” Then, go back to the candidate and ask permission to reach out to these additional references. As long as it seems logical to do so, the best performers typically have no problem with your talking to additional references.

3. Don’t have junior people make reference calls to senior leaders.

Don’t delegate reference calls to senior executives and managers to others –complete these calls yourself. Executives are much more likely to share their honest perspective on a candidate with someone they perceive as a peer. Furthermore, it gives you the first-hand opportunity to hear about your candidates strengths and weaknesses.

4. Always listen for what references don’t say.

Are references enthusiastic? Do they want to say great things about the person? Are they a raving fan of the individual or just an objective observer? I want to hear references be genuinely enthusiastic about people during a reference conversation. In my experience, a candidate who lacks enthusiastic references often is not an A-player.

5. Make sure to speak with past superiors, peers, and subordinates.

We all know people whose bosses love them but whose subordinates hate them (and vice versa). Talk to people with different levels of responsibility during your reference calls – you will get a much more complete picture of the person you are considering for hire.

Yes, today’s corporate rules and regulations can make reference checking a more demanding process. However, references remain a source of tremendous insight as you seek to ensure a good hiring decision. Commit to doing the groundwork, and you will find people who will tell you what you want and need to know about the people you are considering for hire.


Eric Herrenkohl is a retained executive search consultant who works with the world’s top supply chain and manufacturing leaders. He is also the author of How to Hire A-Players, published by Wiley and described as “the definitive book on talent acquisition.” For more of Eric’s articles and video clips, visit

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