How To Conduct A Reference Check

Performing a reference check as early in the hiring process as possible was a big part of last week’s post on how to speed up the sales hiring process. It’s still good advice but if you don’t know how to conduct a reference check it’s not adding any value – no matter when you do it.

There are two parts to a successful reference check. The first is who you’re talking to. The second is what you’re asking. If you’re on target with both, you’ll get great insight into your candidate, so let’s take a closer look at a successful reference check.

Who Are You Talking To?

The biggest mistake most companies make is not being specific when requesting references. After all, you don’t know who’s going to be on the generic reference sheet the candidate keeps on hand or whether they’re going to provide any useful insight.

This goes beyond the typical personal/professional reference divide. If you’re hiring sales professionals, request a list of sales managers, VP’s or – at the very least – other sales coworkers. You won’t always get exactly what you’re looking for – so be flexible – but at least you won’t be calling ex-professors and Arby’s shift supervisors.

What Are You Talking About?

A good reference check should last 10 – 15 minutes but you won’t always get that much time. Start by confirming the length of employment, salary and the details of performance. Privacy or legal concerns may prevent you from getting everything you ask for but it’s still worth confirming as many particulars as possible.

Once you’ve got the basics covered you can move on to some ‘interview’ style questions, such as:

  • What were they hired to do?
  • Why did they leave?
  • What were their best sales qualities?
  • What do they need to work on?
  • Would you rehire them?

References will typically try to sidestep anything negative about the candidate, so pay close attention to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. If they’re hesitating or using indecisive statements like ‘Yeah, I guess Dave gave a pretty good demo.’ they may be covering up a weakness.

However, whether for credibility or because they’ve internalized the idea of the ‘compliment sandwich’, references will usually include some token weakness of the candidate. Keep track of them, since the role of a reference check isn’t just to see if the candidate is worth hiring and this can be a head’s up for potential areas of improvement.

The most important thing to keep in mind about reference checks it that it’s important to do them. It’s tempting to trust your gut or write them off as a waste of time because people are only going to give you people with good things to say about them. After all, the fact that they can find three people to say nice things about them counts for something, right?