What Good References Tell You

What Good References Tell You

reference callReference checks.  Do you swear by them, think they are a joke, or just get them over with quickly as an administrative formality?

Clients often ask us what we learn from checking references.  Common refrains are:  “Isn’t it a waste of time?  Don’t references just all say nice things?”  or “Don’t most companies have a neutral reference policy just so they won’t get sued?”

I swear by them.  I love checking references. My very clever employment attorney, Rick Vernon even crafted a wonderful reference release document we’ve used for years. (Yeah, when someone raves about their reference release form, you know they are a fan of checking references.)

So what do we learn from checking references?  Well, for starters we learn:

  1. How willing the candidate is to complete and return the release form.
  2. What kind of people are willing to be listed as references.
  3. How willing the references are to get back with us quickly.
  4. Whether the references were contacted in advance to expect our call.
  5. How willing the references were to share their time.

So simply asking for references tells you quite a bit.  But going further, what do good references actually say when you talk to them?  We advocate asking the references about job competencies, just like you did when you interviewed the candidate (“Tell me about a time when …”).    But beyond their answers to your questions, what else should you be listening for?

Often references go beyond a candidate’s job competencies and tell us the candidate is:

  • Personally engaged in their work, invested in getting results, but “does not take thing personally” when setbacks occur
  • Curious to learn more about their work
  • Willing to share information
  • Happy to go above and beyond what is expected, perhaps working too hard.  Sometimes not knowing when to stop improving something
  • Easy to work with, accommodating, upbeat
  • Professional in demeanor
  • Likes to be challenged
  • Willing to take the ball and run with it
  • Good at asking the right questions, tracking down resources, and solving problems
  • Great at communicating, easy to manage

By and large, great people have great references.  At the end of a good reference call, you should feel more energized and excited about hiring the candidate.  If you don’t, it should be a red flag for you.

So, if you are not getting a signed reference release, or if you are getting a release and not calling the references personally, or if you are calling the references personally but not hearing glowing feedback like this … well, then you might want to adjust your hiring process.

Bob Corlett is the founder and President of Staffing Advisors. He’s been named as one of the 100 most influential people in staffing, is a nationally syndicated weekly writer for the American Cities Business Journals and is a founding member of the Editorial Advisory Board for The HR Examiner. Bob is a frequent speaker at meetings of the Society for Human Resources Management. Thousands of hiring executives read his monthly newsletter, and the Resource Center on this site contains hundreds of his articles on innovation, staffing, leadership and performance management. Bob has worked in the staffing industry since 1989, starting Staffing Advisors in 2002.