The Trick to Getting References to Call You Back (And Give Honest Answers)

April 17, 2017

The sad truth is that in this day and age, most hiring managers consider the effort of making reference calls to be a waste of time. Why? Because in response to the potential legal consequences, most corporate policy discourages any conversation beyond confirming the name of the employee and their dates of employment. And while that’s necessary information, it’s wholly inadequate if you’re looking for additional insight as to whether or not a candidate is a high or low performer. 

In addition, people aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to give references. Imagine you get a call from some unknown person who says, “My name is Pat Manager from ACME Corp.  Your name was given as a reference for Bob Smith. I’d like to ask you about Mr. Smith, particularly his strengths and weaknesses.” Is there anything in this call that makes you even remotely inclined to exert extra effort to give this employee a reference? Of course not. Does this mean you should blow off the reference check part of the interview? Not at all. There’s a way around discouraging attitude toward references that in many cases will provide you with the information you’re really after. 

Instead of cold calling, have candidates set up calls with references

As an alternative to the phone call scenario depicted above, now imagine you get a call from Bob Smith, your old employee. He was a solid middle performer, and quite personable. He calls, you chat a few minutes, and then he says, “It’s great to talk to you. And I hate to ask, but I really need a favor. I’m up for this job that would really be great for me and my family. But if they can’t talk to you about what it was like to work with me, I know I won’t get the job. They’re willing to talk whenever works for you, even nights and weekends.” 

Are you now more inclined to exert extra effort and take the reference call? Most people say yes, because if you don’t give this reference, you’ve now cost Bob this job. And if you’re really inclined to feel guilty, you’ve just ensured that Bob loses his house, can’t feed his family, and that his kids are starving and living out of the trunk of his car. All because you wouldn’t give one lousy reference. Please note that I’m in no way stating that you should violate your own company’s reference policy if they expressly forbid it; I’m only suggesting that you may be able to get more honest responses from other managers at other companies by using this method.

If you want to get a reference call returned, induce the job candidate set up the call. The candidate won’t be on the actual call, of course, but tell them, “I’m going to need your help getting in touch with this reference. Please contact them and find a time when I could speak with them. I’m happy to talk nights or weekends.” Make sure you offer to talk to the reference at night or on weekends, because if you can talk to them when they’re out of the office, they’ll be much more willing to speak truthfully and give you the real story. If the candidate is motivated to get the job, and has nothing to hide regarding past employment, they will likely track down the reference and give a pitch like the one Bob gave above. And if the reference is not completely heartless, they will take the call. 

Next, ask references these questions to get the information you need

Once you’ve got the reference on the phone, and you’ve completed all the normal “thanks for taking my call” stuff, there are three questions you need to ask:

1. The job involves [insert key high performer attitudinal characteristics, for example: team work, curiosity and a lot of self-directed learning]. How do you think Bob would perform on these issues? 

Even if the reference wasn’t a great boss, they may still have an experience or two that could shed light on these critical attitudinal issues.

2. How did Bob compare to your other employees at the time?

This question helps place Bob, and the reference, in context. Bob may sound great on paper, but if he was just middle of the pack at his previous job, you’ve got an opening to ask, “What could Bob have done in order to be considered a star performer?”

3.  I know everyone has areas where they could improve. Can you share one of those for Bob?

It’s likely that the reference will dodge this question and give some stock answer about how Bob was pretty well-rounded. At this point, you’re going to use some of Bob’s negative experiences that you uncovered during the interview. Say something like “Wow that’s great to hear. But I’m wondering about some of the situations Bob shared with me. For instance, he told me about a time when he was leading a team and three people quit because they had a conflict with him.”  Now the reference is thinking, ‘Well, if they already know all the negative stuff, I can’t get sued for character defamation by elaborating.’And that’s when you get the really juicy information.

When it comes to getting references, you want to avoid voicemail. But if you really get stuck leaving one, here’s the only reference voice mail that works consistently: “Hi, Bob Smith is a candidate for Sales Rep at Acme Corp. Please call me back if he was outstanding. My number is…” This script works in two ways. First, if Bob was a great employee, the reference will feel guilty about inferring otherwise if they don’t return your call. If Bob was bad or mediocre, they won’t like the idea that Bob’s telling people that he was a great employee. So they’ll call you back to “set the record straight.”

Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a NY Times bestselling author, and a sought-after speaker on leadership. Check out Mark’s latest Leadership Styles Quiz to see what kind of leader you are.

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