Why, and how, you should bother to conduct references

Why do references at all?

I’m not a cynic, but I do think there is some truth in what I call “the Dr. Gregory House Framework,” or simply:

A few tips for high quality references

There are two types of references: on- and off-list. An on-list reference is provided by the candidate, while the off-list reference is a connection you make yourself.

  1. Do at least 2–3 off-list references on each candidate. Every now and then, you’ll come across someone with an axe to grind. Most candidates have pissed off someone in their careers, often for good reason, so you don’t want to be overly biased by one bad call.
  2. Proactively build a question list and be consistent with it. Know the key issues ahead of time, and ask the same questions to different people. Working from a list makes it easier to spot inconsistencies.
  3. Start with a friendly tone. Save the tough stuff for the end. I recommend you begin by thanking the reference for participating, and ask what her relationship is to the candidate. Ask her to walk through her history with the candidate in chronological order. This establishes a report and gets the reference in a less defensive frame of mind, which can often be the default when you’re on the receiving end of a reference call. Save the tough questions for the end, but don’t be afraid to ask them. Believe it or not, the reference is expecting them. If you only seek platitudes, you’re going to miss the entire point of the reference.
  4. Don’t lead the witness. Your questions should not bias the reference one way or the other. If you do ask a question like, “What is Julie’s greatest strength?” follow it up sequentially with the opposite question to create a sense of balance in the conversation.
  5. Watch for hedging, hesitation, or evasiveness. The vast majority of people will find it difficult to give a bad reference, even if they want to. Hedging is often a sign of unspoken conflict. If you choose to press deeper, do so carefully.
  6. Always respect confidentiality. Many candidates are still employed when they are talking to you. Don’t blow up someone’s job because you need to check them out off-list. If you decide you need to do certain references that might be uncomfortable for the candidate, ask her for permission first.
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