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The Lost Art of Reference Checks

Any time I’m about to make a purchase, of almost any size, I always check the reviews of the product – I think most people do. They want to know what other people thought about the product or service they are looking to buy. After scanning a mix of the great ones and terrible ones, most people feel better informed about the purchase and armed with the pros and cons – make their decision.

Yet, I’m consistently bewildered when companies – making a much larger investment and decision to hire someone – very rarely check the ‘reviews’ of their candidates, or do it as a ‘check the box’ part of the process at the end by HR or a clearly-biased recruiting firm.

And, amazingly, often the higher the level of candidate (Director/VP/C-level) – the less frequently they are checked at all. Companies, in my opinion, assume the candidates got to where they are because they are great. Most of the time, that is probably true.

But I have found – especially in today’s remote-heavy market – even in the absence of a ‘back-channel’ or ‘who knows them’ type of check, companies still mainly rely on the feel during an interview versus actually speaking to candidate professional references.

To me, this is the equivalent of looking at all the beautiful pictures and sizing of a product and ordering it, only the return isn’t quite as easy.

My advice, whether hiring for entry-level or C-suite, is for company hiring managers to personally speak to as many previous supervisors and reports of the candidate as possible. Get the full picture. Professionals in the staffing industry call this a ‘360-degree reference check’, and they may claim to do it for you. Some do, most don’t.

The higher the level of position, the more important it is for the Hiring Manager to speak directly to people who were in their position previously with the candidate. There is no substitute for this information.

Here are some critical questions to ask, if you aren’t already doing so:

  • What does this candidate excel at, what did you give them without a moment of hesitation?

  • What did this candidate struggle with, what feedback did you give them to implement and how did they do?

  • How did their peers view this candidate? Did they work well with other teams? Was there any friction that needed to be addressed?

  • What advice would you give me if we were to hire this candidate in managing them? What would I need to look out for in my style to help them succeed?

  • If you were in my position right now, and you had these deliverables, would you have any concerns about hiring this candidate?

For entry-level and junior candidates, supervisory references can be difficult to obtain, but there are still ‘reviews’ out there!

Once, when deciding on a new grad hire with very little experience, I was on the fence at the time between two candidates. The more polished candidate had a decent reference. Great person, extrovert, always eager to learn, etc. The other candidate played soccer in college and I spoke to her coach. I shared my concern about how intense she came across in the interview, knowing this person would have to be in front of clients. The coach said she’d never met, let alone coached, a more disciplined and hard-working person in her life. It might have been a great selling job by the coach, but we hired her and she became the best salesperson in the company within 2 years.

Consider what a reference is for exactly. It can certainly be a ‘check’ to verify the candidate is legitimate. It can ALSO be a way of getting insight and intel on how to best deploy the strengths of the candidate you are selecting. Why wouldn’t a Hiring Manager want this information to make their job easier? If you don’t have time personally, we can teach your team to do it right.

For the candidate, references are proof that they are worth the salary they are asking. In my experience, candidates of any level who do not quickly and easily supply strong references to companies for real positions are questionable. The great ones want you to talk to people who have worked with them. This is why they are worth it.

Best of luck rediscovering the Lost Art of reference checks for your candidates and happy hunting in this current market!

About the Author:

Mike Nicholas is the founder of Davis Laine, LLC, an expert advisory firm specializing in solving talent acquisition headaches through TA setup advisory, specialized recruiter skills training, and RPO Recruiting services.

For more helpful information, visit

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