Ok…we know you’re not a mind reader! So what is your approach to checking job candidate references to get the best insight on your next potential employee?
How do you decipher the answers that a reference cannot say legally?
Gaining information regarding the previous work approach, attitudes, and behavioral tendencies of would-be employees is a tricky business. Though legally free to provide reference checkers with any work-related information about a previous employee, many past employers still refuse to offer more than just dates of employment, salary history, and job title.
Establishing trust with each reference is critical for gaining information that goes beyond the surface. Try to convey to the person that your goal is to ensure a good fit for both your organization and the individual – not to pry into personal issues. This should encourage more open communication.
If you reach this point, you’ll now need to pull out that crystal ball to gain a better understanding of what the applicant’s reference is really trying to tell you.
For example, if the previous employer notes your candidate was a great manager or great salesperson but didn’t get along with the owner of the company, it could be the two had opposite personalities or held different expectations of one another. Are you and this candidate apt to get along? What is your own personality? Are your short-term and long-term objectives for the candidate in line with his or hers? The answers a reference gives to your questions points you in the direction to take when holding further discussions with a potential new hire.
If at all possible, avoid questions that elicit a “yes” or “no” response. Focus on questions that are open-ended and allow the reference to describe events, accomplishments, and difficulties. Ask for examples and explanations. Listen between the lines, try to pick up on clues, and drill down below the initial comments' surface to make a reference truly useful.
It’s important to assess not just the overall comments a reference makes, but also the specific word choices and the tone and enthusiasm with which the reference describes the candidate. If he or she makes a comment that seems unclear, ask a follow-up question. Keep in mind, though, that some people are naturally prone to offering vague, one-word answers while others, with a little prompting, become extremely open.
Keep your antennae up for shifts in tone, long pauses, or hesitations that might indicate you’ve hit a sensitive or troublesome subject. Acknowledge the shift, be willing to follow up, and, most importantly, probe the source. Also, keep an ear out for overly enthusiastic references without sufficient depth of examples to back up the praise. Some references may be in a hurry – and willing to tell you whatever they think you want to hear.
Be sure to get written permission from the candidate before taking references. You cannot start the process until they do so. To protect the reference-giver, do not attribute sources of specific quotes or comments, and destroy hand-written notes once the referencing report is written. A candidate can request a copy of their reference report.