4 min read

When and How to Ask For Candidate References (and actually get them)

When and how to ask for candidate references

I know, as you read this blog topic you probably thought to yourself, "really, who in the heck does candidate reference checks these days?"  Yes, sadly, many recruiting professionals have stopped conducting references checks altogether. They rationalize this decision by claiming that references no longer offer any information of value.  They go on to complain that organizations today will only validate a candidate's dates of employment and offer no other insight regarding the candidate's work performance or quality of work.  Recruiters will also tell you that they when they ask their candidates for their references they get stuck with candidate objections like:

  • “I don’t want to burn out my references”
  • “I will share my references when I get a job offer”
  • “You haven’t even submitted my resume to the hiring manager yet”

I also hear recruiters say “If I wait on the candidate getting me their references I risk the candidate going to a competitor and being submitted by another recruiter.”  While these are common concerns, they can all easily be overcome.candidate bomb job interview

The list of reasons for why recruiters can't or don't conduct candidate references goes on and on.  But I'm writing this blog post, when and how to ask for candidate references, so that recruiters learn and understand when in the candidate interview process to ask for references and most importantly, how to ask for candidate references. I also want to remind recruiters why conducting candidate references is such a critically important step that can't be overlooked.

Why Conducting Candidate Reference Checks is too Important to Skip

When you’re looking to hire a great candidate to fill an important role, it’s easy to get swept up by a stellar resume or a great interview. While a well-written resume or stellar interview might be filled with impressive accomplishments, it’s important to remember those are just two independent factors. To really understand whether a candidate would be the best fit, it’s always best to talk to the people who know best; their references.

It’s important to speak with a candidate’s references because most resumes don't paint the entire picture of a candidate’s work experience and background. By speaking with a candidate’s references you can learn about the projects they participated in, the work product they produced, the quality of their work, the challenges they had to overcome, how they interact with team members and ask about intangibles like punctuality and the ability to meet deadlines. 

The reality is, a hasty candidate submittal to a hiring manager can be costly. Recruiters need to take the time to do their due diligence to ensure they submit the right candidate for the job the first time.  Besides social media checks, background checks, and the standard job interview, you should always call a job candidate’s references. The reference check is your first and sometimes only opportunity to learn about a candidate from an outside source.  Not only do reference checks allow you to verify facts from resumes, cover letters, and interviews, but they also provide you the opportunity to learn about a job candidate through the eyes of another professional. 

When and How to Ask Your Candidates For References

Once you and your candidate have determined that the candidate is qualified, interested and available for your opportunity and the two of you have made the decision to submit the candidate to the hiring manager, you should be asking your candidate for three professional references. The reason why it is so important that you ask for and get candidate references early in the process is because candidate references can save everyone a lot of time and be a powerful sales tool for overcoming objections and concerns raised by the hiring manager.  Strong candidate references can often put hiring managers at ease and make them feel more comfortable in moving forward with the candidate interview and eventually the hire. 

How to Ask Your Candidate For Your Their Professional References

When asking candidates for professional references you can use the following script.

<insert candidate’s first name>, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation today and learning about your background and work experience. I can’t tell you how excited I am to get your resume in front of the hiring manager.  To proceed with your candidacy and submitting your resume to the hiring manager I will first need three professional references of your three most recent supervisors (don't settle for an HR contact, that is NOT the same thing). But first, I want you to know why I’m asking you for this information now, so early in the process. Think about how much new information I just learned from you in our interview together that is NOT on your resume?  Now, imagine how many more amazing things I will learn about your ability and accomplishments from speaking with your references? My point is, your best success stories are NOT on your resume. Your best success stories reside in the minds of the supervisors you worked for in the past. Those are the stories we need to share with the hiring manager to ensure we get you the interview.  Sharing your success stories that your references share with me is how I will pitch you to the hiring manager. We don’t just send your resume over and hope for the best. For those reasons, I need the names and phone numbers of three professional references. They all need to be current or past supervisors. Does that sound fair?”

Yes, that is a mouthful which is why recruiters need to engage in experiential training, so they can practice delivering the message until they're "pitch perfect."  But there are a few things to point out about this script.

First, it is direct with setting clear expectations. There is no ambiguity.   It states “to proceed with your candidacy and submitting your resume to the hiring manager I will first need three professional references of your three most recent supervisors.” 

Second and perhaps most importantly, it explains to the candidate WHY you need this information and why you need it now, so early in the process. The reasoning helps the candidate understand how sharing their references will help them get the interview. 

Third, it also states “we don’t just send your resume over and hope for the best.”  This line is in the script specifically to proactively address the all-too-common objection “just send my resume over and I will provide references later.”  This line in the script is designed to proactively kill this objection before the candidate even has an opportunity to raise it. 

Information You Need From Your Candidate For Conducting Candidate References

Any decent recruiter training program should be teaching you to be asking your candidates for each of the following: 

  • Three professional references of current and/or prior supervisors, not peers, co-workers, friends or colleagues.  Additional peer and colleague references are good but do NOT accept peer references in lieu of a supervisor reference 
  • Each reference could be from the same company but supervised the candidate while working for a different team, department or project.  Or each reference could be from three separate companies. The point is, you want insight from three different people who had three different working experiences with your candidate 
  • Get the correct spelling of the supervisor's first and last name 
  • Get the correct email address and work phone number of each supervisor. Get their cell phone number if possible
  • If the reference now works for a new or different employer, be sure to get the name and correct spelling of the company they currently work, location, and the URL for the company website 

In my next blog post I will discuss best practices for executing the candidate reference check. To learn more about sourcing, screening and qualifying IT candidates, download our eBook, Executing the Candidate Interview, Five Pillars to Effective Qualification.

Executing Candidate Interviews for Effective Qualification

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