For many recruiting professionals, conducting candidate reference checks is a thing of the past. Many find it to either be too difficult or too time consuming or both. Not only that, most recruiters will tell you that conducting candidate reference checks is a waste of time. They will go on to tell you that they are a waste of time because most employers are secretive and protective of the information they are willing to share regarding their former employees. Don't get me wrong, that is a legitimate issue and challenge that must be overcome. But I'm hear to tell you that these challenges can easily be overcome. In fact, reference checks are only a waste of time for those who ask weak questions or call the wrong people (when conducting the candidate reference).
In this blog post, executing the candidate reference call, I'm going to share tips and best practices for how to frame the candidate reference call so that recruiters get valuable and actionable insight regarding their candidates, data that they can use to actually help them make more placements. Not only that, I even provide a script in addition to twelve high impact candidate reference questions recruiters can and should be asking.
Before we begin, you might want to read my blog post, When and How to Ask for Candidate References. Reading this will not only provide additional context for this blog, but it will help you understand when and how to ask a candidate for their professional references in such a way that you actually get them.
Setting Call Expectations for the Candidate Reference Check
When you get the candidate reference on the phone, the first thing you need to do is properly set expectations for the call. This is where most recruiters mess up. Most recruiters say something like “I’m calling to do a reference check on Dan, can I ask you a few questions?” Then they go into their closed ended questions. This is NOT the right way to open a candidate reference call. Any recruiter training program worth it's salt teaches recruiters the right way to open and engage in a candidate reference call.
To properly set expectations for the candidate reference call I suggest recruiters follow these four simple steps.
1.) Show Appreciation
Thank them for their time. You can say, “thanks for taking the time and taking my call. As a hiring manager, I’m sure you know how important candidate references are including the insights you can share with me regarding your experience working with <insert candidate’s first name>.
2.) Explain the Purpose of the Call
Next, you need to explain the purpose of the call. Specifically, you need to provide context for the candidate reference call. This is by far the most important part of the candidate reference call. The degree and relevance to which you provide context for the call will have the biggest impact on the quality and relevancy of the information you receive from the reference. Context adds relevance and specificity which will help the reference share their experience working with your candidate in a way that is relevant to you and your role and eventually the hiring manager.
To provide context and explain the purpose of the call you can say the following: “As you know, <state candidate’s first name> listed you as a former supervisor who I could contact to conduct an employee reference check. We are currently considering <state candidate’s first name> for the position of <name your position>. What I would like to do is begin by sharing some context for you regarding the project he/she will be working on including the project goals, scope and timeline. I will also share with you some of the challenges he/she will be expected to solve and the work artifacts he/she will be expected to deliver. From there I would like to ask you some questions to understand the work he/she performed for you and it's relevance to the project and role we are considering him/her for. I also want to get a better understanding of their day to day responsibilities and the quality of their work, work ethic, communication style and overall performance.”
This script sets clear expectations regarding the level of detail you-the recruiter-intend to get into regarding your candidate and their relevant working experience. Most importantly, by first sharing this information upfront with the reference you give them context for the role in which your candidate is being considered. This way the reference can answer your questions and share their insights and experiences within the context that is specific to the role you are considering the candidate for. Without context your reference questions lose their meaning and have no impact.
3.) Establish Time Allocation: Explain How Much Time is Needed
Next, you need to set expectations regarding how long the reference check call will take. Don’t say “I just need to ask you a few questions.” If you say that you set a false expectation for the reference in which they now think the call will only take 3-4 minutes. Besides, what message does it send the reference about the quality of your work? Conducting a good reference check takes at least 15 minutes and sometimes can last as long as 30 minutes. You could say, “this typically takes 15 minutes, depending on the complexity and scope of work they performed for you. Does that sound fair?”
4.) Set Expectations For How The Call Will End
Finally, you will want to set expectations for how the call will end. You could try saying the following: “My objective is that by the end of the call I will have a much better understanding of how to best position <state candidate’s first name> for this role and any future positions we may consider him/her for. Finally, if you have any questions for me I will be happy to answer them. How does that sound?”
Executing the Candidate Reference Questions
After establishing clear call expectations with the reference you want to begin the discussion by providing context. As mentioned previously, to provide context, share with the reference the following information regarding the role and project your candidate is being considered for (you should be getting this information when taking and qualifying the job requirement):
- The project overview including the project description, project scope, scope of effort and goals
- The deliverables the candidate will be expected to produce
- The challenges the candidate will be expected to solve
- The results the candidate will be expected to deliver
After sharing this information you can begin with your questions. Here are twelve high-impact candidate reference questions. Keep in mind that they are only high-impact if you properly frame the conversation by providing context.
- How do you think he/she would perform in this type of role?
- Why do you say that?
- In what ways was the work and projects he/she worked on for you similar to this role/project?
- Tell me how he/she overcome these same/similar challenges?
- What steps did they take to overcome those challenges?
- Explain to me how they produced or delivered the same or similar work artifacts
- What results did he/she deliver for you?
- What tools/skills/processes/methodologies did they apply or implement to deliver the results?
- What was the biggest challenge they solved for you?
- What unique skills, traits or experience do you think they bring to this role/project?
- Tell me about a time he/she had to deal with a difficult personality or person
- If you started your own company with your own money, would you rehire them?
As you read through the questions you may have noticed a theme. The questions are designed to ask the reference to assess and evaluate how they believe the candidate would perform in the role under consideration, based on the experience they had supervising the candidate. The questions are also designed to be asked in sequential order. Don’t jumble up the order in which you ask the questions. Ask the questions in the sequential order in which they are listed. As you ask these questions-assuming it is a positive reference- you will notice a story will emerge about your candidate. This is by design, as a result of following the questioning methodology and the sequential order. It is this story that can and will become part of the candidate pitch to the hiring manager. Just keep in mind that you may need to ask additional clarifying questions based on the references initial response to your question(s).
And that is it. I promise you that if you practice applying these tips including the scripts through experiential training you will discover that conducting candidate references is not only EASY but well worth time. When done correctly, conducting candidate references increases candidate submittal to interview ratios and interview to offer ratios.
To learn more about sourcing, screening, interviewing and qualifying IT candidates, download our eBook, Executing the Candidate Interview, Five Pillars to Effective Qualification.