You’ve got a candidate that you’re excited about, and they’ve flown through your interviews and technical tests. You’re sure they’re the right fit for your business - but you’re not going to complete the offer based on just your own feelings. Now’s the time to seek references from the individual’s previous employers, their bosses and peers.
Every type of reference can be reduced down to one of three categories:
Reference from someone you know well
Reference from someone you don’t know well (or at all)
At Juggle we'd always suggest that the onus be on you to get the reference, as opposed to asking for a written one and staying put. Not only is that likely to take much longer (with a greater risk of not getting one at all) talking on the phone is the best way to satisfy your own specific needs (and perform a consistent enquiry if you've got multiple candidates at this stage).
Getting a reference from someone you know well
If you have mutual connections with the interviewee you can seek the second option at the start of an interview process; we’d recommend doing this whenever possible (there's nothing more frustrating than the hiring process falling through right at the end when you’ve already invested a huge amount of time and energy).
This type of reference comes with the obvious caveat that you must trust your contact to be professional and discreet. If there is any doubt in your mind then don’t seek a reference in this manner.
The questions here can be very open-ended - as you can take your time to get all the information you need and can (hopefully) trust your associate's opinion and motives - and can be very direct. No point beating around the bush. As always, make sure you’re actively listening and asking follow-up questions:
What are they like?
Would you have them on your team/in your business again?
What do I need to watch out for?
Unless you have question marks about dates (which is a huge red flag - why are you considering hiring this person?) then we'd label option 1 a complete waste of time. With the exception of some regulated industries, companies are not obliged to give the type of reference that you’re looking for, so you’ll simply get a confirmation on dates and then put off.
To avoid ending up in this scenario, explain to the candidate exactly what you are looking for (a proper reference over the phone) and ask if they can provide you with people happy to do this. Once you’ve got some names you can move on to option 3. If they really struggle to oblige we would consider that a red flag in itself.
It’s worth noting that deliberately misunderstanding the question and pushing back to HR is a way to avoid giving a bad reference, so if your candidate’s references do so despite qualification (and the candidate is unable to come up with alternate references) that’s also a bad sign.
References from people you don’t know
These should last about 15-20 minutes if they're expecting your call and have had time to get their thoughts in order. Begin by establishing that you are speaking to someone who was their superior and/or worked very closely with them (unless you have a good reason to talk with someone else).
The key here is follow-up questions. Avoid closed questions that can be answered simply (unless they're absolute deal-breakers that you need a yes/no on), and keep probing and searching for context until you're confident in what you've learned.
We’ve suggested some questions designed to open a conversation for follow-up questions:
How would you describe X?
When is she/he at her/his best?
What causes him/her to become stressed?
Can you describe a piece of work/time that really impressed you?
How did she/he handle the change at [company name]? (You’ll have the company’s details from the candidate’s CV - do some research so you can ask a question about a specific business development or change).
How does she/he interact with other people in the business?
What advice did you give them during their time at [company name]?
What advice would you give them now?
Some final tips:
It's fine to run through the CV with them but avoid leading the discussion by using what the candidate has already told you - allow the reference to answer using their own words.
Don’t ignore your gut. If something they say gives you a bad feeling then keep following up until you’re satisfied, even if it makes the conversation a little awkward. Do not simply ask the candidate about it later.
With that said, be consistent with the questions you ask about multiple candidates. Anything else gives unconscious bias a chance to creep in.
Keep following up until you’re really confident you understand this person better. This is your last and best chance to get an outside opinion on the candidate, so make the most of it.
TAKE NOTES. Don't rely on your memory. If you're taking references for multiple candidates this is especially important as you'll need the notes to perform a fair comparison later.