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Today I’ll discuss the art of reference checks, and how you should use them to get the full measure of a potential candidate.

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If you’re an employer, why bother doing a reference check if you’re not going to get the most out of the call? A well-executed reference check can be a valuable tool in assessing a candidate’s fit for a role and should be more than something we do rotely just to get to the offer.

As a recruiter, we will typically be asked to conduct our client companies’ reference calls as part of our service, and it’s something we take seriously. Based on our years in the business, here are a few tips that I recommend to get the most from your reference check calls:

First, focus on professional references. The candidate should provide the reference’s name, title at the time they worked together, current position and company, and phone and email address to confirm validity. Personal references can add context, but we definitely get the most value from professional references. Ideally, we look for an immediate past supervisor and, if possible, someone who has left the candidate’s current company and can speak to the most recent work situation.

Also, be sure that the candidate alerts the references that you will be calling, so you can avoid playing phone-tag and frustration on all sides. We like to secure 360-degree references, particularly for our engaged searches, from a supervisor, peer, and subordinate. This provides added context regarding the candidate’s strengths and areas of development as a co-worker and leader, which can be valuable.

Asking about a candidate’s strengths is easy—people are happy to talk about the good things. If you ask about weaknesses, however, the answer is usually much shorter or the reference “can’t think of any.” So, we like to ask about “areas of development,” and if the information isn’t easily forthcoming, say, “Everyone has development opportunities, so I’m not necessarily asking for a weakness, but rather something professional or personal that this person was working on when you knew him.”


 A well-executed reference check can be a valuable tool
in assessing a candidate’s fit for a role and should be more than
something we do rotely just to get to the offer.


A typical question is, “Would you rehire this person?” I also like to ask, “If you were me, what sort of role and company do you feel would be the best fit for this person?”

Now, the candidate may well have told the reference about the job, but most often the reference would not be 100% sure that I am speaking about that particular position and so would tend to answer honestly about best fits. The question about what environment the candidate truly thrives in can be very enlightening.

If possible, ask for situational examples. “Tell me about a particular challenge this person faced; how did he address that challenge? How did he achieve buy-in from others? What was the result?”

Another great question is, “Tell me about something the person did that had a long-term impact on the company.”

In all cases, don’t be afraid of the silence—ask a question, then pause for the reply. Resist the urge to fill in dead spaces and give the person time to think and speak naturally. The tone and either immediate enthusiastic reply or pause while the reference struggles to think of the answer can speak volumes. Usually, a person speaking as a reference will not directly give negative feedback, but there are ample clues if you “read between the lines.”

If you have any questions or comments about today’s topic, please give me a call or shoot me an email through the link in this message. I hope to hear from you soon.


Rob Bowerman is President and Founder of The Bowerman Group- a leading executive search firm for luxury brands in the US and Canada. Rob is also President of The Pinnacle Society, the premier consortium of industry-leading recruiters in North America.

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