We were recruiting for an executive role and had already undertaken six reference checks on the candidate. Those referees confirmed that, yes, they believed the candidate could do the job. However, they neither confirmed he was superbly well suited to the role, nor such a poor match he wasn’t worth progressing. It took the seventh call to gain the insight needed…more on that soon.

Reference checks remain a crucial part of the recruitment mix – whether managed in-house or by consultants. At Carroll Consulting, we use executive reference checks for three key purposes:

  • Confirming the journey to date
  • Understanding repeating patterns of behaviour
  • Uncovering the ultimate insight needed to make decisions

Let’s take a quick look at each.

Confirming the journey to date

Once you reach the reference-check stage, you’ve already been on a journey of discovery. Referee feedback ideally validates the information gained through phone screenings, interviews and selection criteria responses. Up to this point, you’ve likely only heard from the voice of the candidate – making the reference check a vital third-party input.

There is an art and science to effectively managing reference checks – which I won’t cover here. However, I will say that it’s essential to try to understand a referee’s frame of reference and, in particular, the benchmark they use for what’s outstanding, good or below average. This is vital to explaining gaps that may appear between a candidate’s representation of themselves and a referee’s. It also pays to be aware of a referee’s immediate context. I once called for a reference check with a senior partner of a law firm and could tell he was late for lunch – everything was fantastic!

Understanding repeating patterns of behaviour

We frequently share about repeating patterns of behaviour for good reason – past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour. Reference checks offer valuable tools for determining behavioural traits that previous stages, including psychometric testing, have surfaced. This is your opportunity to find out whether not one person, but multiple people, can attest to a candidate consistently living certain behaviours. One-off observations may not be invalid, but they carry notably less credibility and assurance than behaviours demonstrated over and again.

Uncovering the ultimate insight needed to make decisions

The third opportunity that reference checking provides – if managed effectively – is the chance to identify that extra insight needed to make the right call. The key is to invest time in digging deeper. Back to the case study mentioned at the start. The seventh referee was the one who indicated the person was a good manager, but not a good leader and, specifically, that they would struggle leading knowledge workers. This immediately clarified what we had not been seeing: the person was capable and skilled, but the role required a great leader and they simply didn’t have that leadership competency.

So how many reference checks are enough? Fortunately, the answer is simple and not daunting. You continue checking until you know the candidate is the right fit for the role and culture you’ve identified (to the extent practical without them being in the role, of course). In the example above, we knew leadership was critical and our reference checks hadn’t adequately addressed leadership one way or the other. We had a gap. We pressed on.

Reference checking reminds me of something Steve Jobs once said: “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”. To me this says you need to keep working through the process – to complete the journey, to identify the patterns, and to capture the insights needed to drive the right decisions.

Happy recruiting!

Ian Hamilton


Photo by Jim Reardan on Unsplash