The Search for Authentic References

When you interview someone for a position you typically only get to spend an hour or two with them before you make a decision.  In that amount of time it is hard to gather all of the information you need to come to a verdict.   A “working interview” is an excellent way to gain additional insight but that isn’t always an option.  Therefore, speaking with those who have worked with your candidate in the past can be critical in determining if a candidate is the right fit for you. Unfortunately, checking references is one of the most frustrating parts of the hiring process.   If you can get the references your candidate gives you on the phone you are then possibly faced with several unhelpful scenarios.

  1. They won’t speak to you, citing company policy.
  2. They won’t say anything negative or even constructive about the candidate.
  3. They speak in code – afraid to say anything negative but unwilling to give you a straight answer.
  4. They are so enthusiastic and positive about the candidate that you wonder if you are speaking to their mother.

If you want some background on why employers are so hesitant to answer your questions about a candidate, and why you should be cautious as well, I recommend that you read this article.

Checking references can be a frustrating part of the hiring process but it can really save you months of pain with the wrong person.  Past employers sometimes won’t speak to you and often give you long-winded praise, or short and terse replies.  We have been cracking this coded language for years and have put together a short but helpful review of our successes.

My team speaks with 10 – 20 references every week as we move candidates through our screening process, so we fight this battle on a daily basis.  Here are the numbers in my experience:  Only about 10% of the people we talk to provide information that causes us NOT to recommend a candidate.  At least 50% of the time the information they provide is erroneous or too subjective.  With these figures 1 out of every 10 candidates is screened out and that right there makes the trouble and aggravation of reference checking worthwhile.   A bonus - aside from screening purposes, we do occasionally get some really helpful insights that allow a new employer to onboard and train more smoothly, and this directly increases retention of hires.


For the purposes of this article, I want to talk about what we do to dig below the surface and conduct as thorough a reference check as possible.

  1. We have our candidates sign a Reference Authorization and Release form that explicitly allows us to contact the references they provide and ask whatever we want (within the law).  When we speak to a reference reluctant to answer our questions we send them the signed release.  90% of the time this works to circumvent their discomfort or company policy.
  2. We ask the candidate for 6 references and we tell the candidate that we will ask each of them for an additional person that we can talk to (co-worker, vendor, subordinate, etc).  Our goal being 9 total references.
  3. We instruct the candidate to tell their references to expect our call and our request for additional reference contacts.  We rarely find references willing to give us additional contacts but we still ask and I think it is worthwhile to do so.  Our goal is to get a 360 degree view of the candidate.
  4. If we are having trouble contacting people, we ask the candidate to help us by contacting them directly and giving our hours and phone number.  This is a major help, and it keeps the candidate interested as they may be getting anxious or considering other positions if they are truly sought after.  This does happen on occasion.  It also serves as a part of our screening:  How fast do they contact their references?  How motivated do they sound to help out?
  5. We ask every reference the same 10 questions using a standard form.  We will ask additional questions if we have a specific concern that we want to address.  Using a standard questionnaire makes it easier to manage your references and to compare them.  Does everyone say the same things about the candidate? If so, it’s a good bet that feedback is accurate.
  6. We utilize field-tested follow-up questions that highlight something the reference said that raised our attention.  This requires them to think about where their opinion came from and often gives us valuable examples, or, opens up a conversation about areas where the candidate needs improvement.

Interpreting a negative reference

There is a lot to be said here about second guessing yourself, and one negative reference doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t hire the candidate.  When we get a negative reference we do two things.  Firstly, we try to uncover if it is a genuine insight they are sharing or if it is motivated by something else.  Secondly, we try to speak with other people from that company.  More than once we have received negative feedback on a candidate only to find out that the reference had personal conflicts with several people in the office or they felt personally offended that the candidate quit and they wanted to make things difficult for them.  At the end of the day we try to gather as much information as possible and then encourage our client to go with their gut instinct.

Interpreting a Positive Reference

This surprisingly takes a bit more work.  One of the key things is to make your questions clear, your tone conversational yet formal, and to ask for clear examples.  A red flag is when a reference is giving an automatic bubbly response before the question is complete and then can’t recall an example.

We ask a very important question about attention to details regarding paperwork that has a possible rating of 1-10.  10’s can throw us off and make us clarify what we are truly looking for with the reference.  If they are very positive up front I will say “1 being horrible, 10 being completely perfect with absolutely no room for improvement”.  This question creates a situation where we can possibly extract what that “room for improvement” would be.  Maybe it comes from a specific example or correction that was caught.  A lot of times this reminds them that it was just during the first month or during training.  Sometimes they recalculate their measure of the candidate.  This type of approach to each question is the key to getting the facts out of the fluff with an overly positive reference.

Yes, reference checking takes time.  Yes, it can be frustrating.  However, when you hire an assistant you are faced with one of the biggest investments you will make in your business.  A good hire has the ability to double or triple your business and a bad hire can do the opposite.   Your due diligence during this process may make all the difference.