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Deep Background

Effective use of references will reveal valuable insights into job candidates.

By Debra Woog McGinty and Nicole C. Moss

Checking references is an essential step toward minimizing risk in the hiring process. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that a mere half of U.S. employers ever speak with the references supplied by job candidates. Comprehensive reference checking provides important opportunities not only to learn more about candidates, but also to evangelize your company, impress your candidates and even develop new business.

Interviewing a candidate’s references is the most revealing, yet least used selection practice. Take advantage of this low-cost opportunity to gather information about your potential employee.

The best sources of information, aside from the candidate, are former supervisors, colleagues and direct reports. Your candidate should provide detailed information about his chosen references including names, titles, companies, telephone numbers and relationship to the candidate.

Avoid so-called “stealth reference checking” by contacting individuals at the candidate’s current or former places of employment. They seldom produce insights that you can’t obtain by adequately interviewing a candidate’s personally selected references.

Prepare your questions
Identify what you really want to know about the candidate in order to make a hiring decision. Then, using those goals as a guide, frame your questions so they are likely to be answered in detail, and design follow-up questions that encourage each reference to give specifics behind his or her original answers. Here are a few examples:

1. When you want to know: Can this candidate do the job?
Ask: Did this candidate meet your expectations in fulfilling her job duties?

This is a great “blanket” question because it addresses a candidate’s ability to do the same or similar job. Past success or failure is usually predictive of success in the future. This question allows the reference to explain the specifics of a previous position and relate the candidate’s performance to each element.

Drill down by asking about the expectations or goals of the candidate’s position. Inquire about the candidate’s level of performance and whether the candidate simply met or exceeded expectations. You are looking for a performer, so listen for a strong endorsement of her ability to understand the job and meet its demands.

Ask: How did he handle X, Y and Z?
Select three key issues or responsibilities that must be understood completely and must be accomplished in an exemplary manner for the candidate to be successful. Focus your inquiry on these responsibilities.

2. When you want to know: Will this candidate be easy to get along with?
Ask:
How would you characterize this candidate’s relationships with her supervisor, peers or direct reports?

Will your candidate be a daily source of positive energy or a drain on morale? How your candidate’s supervisors, peers and direct reports perceived her, reacted to her and worked with her is indicative of how your staff may interact with her. Candidates usually present their people skills in the best possible light during an interview. By probing about a candidate’s relationships over time, you may establish a more accurate picture of the person.

3. When you want to know: Will this candidate be a team player?
Ask:
Tell me about a time when you noticed this candidate went above and beyond the call of duty for the benefit of the team, demonstrated a high level of commitment to a project, or overcame major obstacles to complete a project.

You not only want your candidate to be a team player and meet expectations, you want him to go above and beyond the norm. Is he a dedicated employee or perhaps focused on employee development as a manager? Of course, these simple questions evoke strong “yes” responses, but digging deeply will give you a better sense of the extent to which your candidate embodies these values. If the reference cannot think of any stories to answer this question, you may be getting a red flag that your candidate is not a team player or does just enough to get by without ever going the extra mile.

4. When you want to know: Does this candidate have bad habits?
Ask:
What are some areas this candidate could improve upon?

Begin this one by acknowledging that no one is perfect, and everyone has areas to work on. In addition to the actual answer, listen for the area the reference chooses to focus on. Did the weakness pertain to maturity, inexperience, interpersonal skills or ability?

The importance of this inquiry is whether an improvement can be made, and what caused the weakness in the first place. Stronger candidates may be weak in skills that they have not had the opportunity to develop. The candidates you should be wary of are those who should have improved this weakness by this time. Another mark of strong candidates is that they are often aware of, and focused on, improving the weakness.

Copyright © 2001 connect2 Corporation and Blueprint. All Rights Reserved.

Debra Woog McGinty, based in the Boston area, is principal of connect2 Corp. She coaches leaders to be expert managers. Contact her at 781-646-5689 or AdvisorToday@connecttwo.com. Nicole Moss provides emerging companies with recruiting consulting services through her company, Blueprint. She can be reached at nicole@blueprintonsite.com.

 


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