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Reference checks, how to make them a slam dunk

reference check

Reference checks should be a slam dunk

Reference checks

When was the last time you gave your reference checks a heads up that they may be getting a call?  There is nothing worse than getting an unexpected call from someone who I don’t know looking for a reference check.  OK, we can think of a few things, but for someone in HR, this is a regular occurrence and when the call is unexpected, it is a wasted opportunity.  There is nothing worse than a wasted opportunity when it comes to landing a job.

First let me say, I am flattered and happy to be a reference.  What I am not happy with is being taken for granted.  Most importantly, we wasted an opportunity, because if I know what the employer is looking for, I can tailor my answer to maximize its impact.  Not only is this the easiest part of the interview to nail, we are in the home stretch at this point.  This is first down and inches.  We should be putting the nail in the coffin, not getting tripped up because of surprises.

Should be a slam dunk

In today’s economy, you want to do everything you can to make it as easy as possible for your potential employer to make you an offer.  Reference checks should be a SLAM DUNK!  They should be a behind the head, around the back – slam dunk.

One way to ensure a slam dunk is to give your provided references a heads up that a call is coming.  Whether it is a reference check for a landlord, credit, or a potential employer, don’t take your references for granted.  A heads up is not only courteous, it is a show of professionalism.

No high expectations, but I gotta do it

As someone who checks references, I don’t have high expectations from references.  Only a dumbass will put down the name of someone as a reference who will say something negative or derogatory about the candidate.  Only a dumbass will be scared of the reference check portion of the hiring process.  THE CANDIDATE HAS FULL CONTROL of this part of the interview process.  This is not the unexpected interview question that will throw you for a loop.  This is 100% in your control.  You are giving me the names of who I call.  I am not telling you whose contact info I want.

If I get to the point where I am checking references, it is down to either 1, maybe two candidates at the very most.  More often than not, it is down to 1 person and sometimes the candidate is already an employee.  I won’t allow references to tip the scales in deciding if we should move ahead with the hire because any smart candidate (we only hire smart ones) will PREP THE REFERENCE.  

References can cause me to retract the offer

This prep of the reference is out of courtesy, out of professionalism, and out of business savvy.  I will allow a reference to back us out of an offer.  If a reference pops up some yellow or red flags, this is a very serious sign.  Yes, I have retracted offers and I am sure we all know someone who has had an offer retracted.  The reasoning provided may not have been the references, it may have been a change in budget, but you get the idea.

For me as the guy checking references, the standard thing I receive is 2-3 names with phone numbers and emails.  I will usually email the reference to set up an appointment (and give the reference time to check in with the candidate) and then call them.  If I don’t get an email, I will just call.  It always makes me a little wary if the reference is surprised by my call.

What makes it easy to check references?

The best list of references I have received was one where the candidate listed names, contact info, and the relationship of the reference to the candidate.  He didn’t have just two or three references, he had close to 10.  What made the list easy was that he had all types of relationships listed.  People that he reported to, people who reported to him, vendors, folks he worked with as peers and folks he worked with as colleagues.  He listed people he mentored and people where he was the one mentored.  Impressive!

The cat is out of the bag, but if I personally am listing references for someone to check up on me, the following is what I explain to the reference.  It is also being courteous and professional with the reference.

Top 5 list prepping references

  1. Give the reference a heads up that you are listing them and that they may be called in the next week or so.
  2. Explain the position applied to and the company
  3. Explain what the interview seemed to focus on. Emphasize any areas where you think the hiring manager may be lacking evidence of your qualifications.  I want the reference to tailor their response in a way that will reinforce my good points and strengthen my weak points.  Yes, I am going to ask them to say very specific things.
  4. I am going to try to position all of the references so that they are reinforcing and strengthening different qualities.   5 references all saying exactly the same generic thing isn’t as effective.
  5. I am going to take all of the references to coffee to say “thank you” and give them an update on whether I got the job or not.  (I will probably want to use these references in the future)

1st and goal, don’t F it up

When I make a reference check as a recruiter, this is the home stretch.  The reference check can tip the scales if it is down to you and one other candidate.  It can also reinforce why you are the right one for the job.  If there is even 2% doubt in the hiring managers mind, this is your opportunity to close.  Think about how many times you have heard about a new hire on their first job and the HR and Hiring manager said: “Your references were stellar.”

Don’t take your references for granted.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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