Reference Checks: Consider the Source
February 27, 2021
by Krista Bradford

For Reference Checks: Consider the Source

Reference checks struck me as odd when I was first became a recruiter a little more than a decade ago and it still seems strange. The reference checking process consists of calling names given to you by the candidate.  That method is the least likely to produce an objective result. No candidate in his or her right mind would direct you to a hiring executive reference who was unhappy with the candidate’s work.

Formal References Are unreliable

References selected by the candidate inevitably put the most positive spin on a candidate’s track record, skills, and abilities. In essence, by relying upon the candidate to provide you with references, you have willingly put on a pair of rose-colored glasses through which you are asked to view the candidate in all his or her imagined glory.

But there is a better way, one detailed by Guy Kawasaki in an article entitled “10 Ways to Use LinkedIn”. Guy is now Chief Evangelist at Canva and was founder and managing director of Garage Technology Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm.

Buried in the middle of his list was the following advice:

“Perform blind, ‘reverse,’ and company reference checks . . . Your search will find the people who worked at the company during the same time period. Since references provided by a candidate will generally be glowing, this is a good way to get more balanced data.”

How to perform a pre-reference check

As detailed above, to perform a pre-reference check, you conduct research aimed at finding people who worked at the same former employer during the same time period as a candidate and then reach out to that person in confidence.

At the beginning of the conversation, I usually ask the pre-reference for referrals for a position I am working on to see if the pre-reference recommends the candidate without prompting. If not, without signaling the person is a candidate, I casually ask the pre-reference whether they’ve heard of the individual.

I explain that we attempt to elicit 3 independent calibrations before approaching a candidate. I reassure the pre-reference that our conversation would be held in the strictest confidence. Moreover, i explain that whatever they say — whether positive or negative or some combination — would be weighed alongside other sources of information.

In other words, their comments alone would not eliminate a candidate from consideration and would not ensure the candidate would move forward. I then ask about the candidate’s performance and whether the pre-reference would recommend that person and why.


A Pre-Reference is a Data Point

To be clear, I have received negative pre-references and determined that they were immaterial to the search we were conducting.

For example, one senior executive we were considering for a role of CEO was a woman who had clashed with another senior executive — our pre-reference — at a former job. Basically, he hated her. 

Other pre-references were wildly positive about the candidate and had only good things to say. Our client did not find the negative pre-reference disqualifying. The executive’s track record of success was far more important.



Pre-References: a Best Practice

The best recruiters I know do pre-reference candidates. It provides critical insights that inform the interview process for candidates who move forward in the process. Pre-references also prevents wasting time on candidates who are not a right for the opportunity.

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