Finessing Executive Referencing

Conducting references falls in to the art category of recruiting rather than the science; it takes finesse to do well, and especially to obtain a balanced perspective including information which is not wholly positive. The recruiter’s challenge is to establish immediate rapport, gently guide the conversation and ask the right questions.

Many reference questions are dependent upon the position the prospect is applying for, the nature of the relationship between the candidate and the referee and the referee’s receptivity. Like an interview, a reference conversation is iterative so there’s no formula. With those caveats, here are a couple of tips I’ve learned over the years.

I always start my referencing conversations with: "How long have you known [candidate], and how do you know him/her?"

This provides the contextual framework and whether or not it is a personal or a professional reference. After getting my bearings, I ask broadly: "How would you describe this person in five minutes?"

I let the referee ad lib their response to this question without much interference. The tone of their comments informs me immediately whether or not the person is positively or negatively inclined towards the candidate and helps me know how to shape the rest of the conversation.

During a professional reference, I always ask for the candidate’s title within the context that the referee knew them. I also ask: “From your stakeholder’s perspective, what were [candidate]’s role and responsibilities? Both of these questions validate the resume; and they naturally segue to: “Who were the other primary stakeholders in this person’s role?”

This expands your reference list beyond those that the candidate gave you; however, never call those individuals without first asking the candidate. Their receptivity to your request for the broader reference list will inform whether or not the references will be positive or negative; you almost don’t need to make the calls.

I avoid asking directly about strengths and weaknesses; the questions are too broad and people have a hard time answering them. Three questions I ask to ascertain weaknesses are:

  • "If you were to hire this person for this role and partnered them with a deputy, what strengths would that deputy need to have in order to balance the candidate well?"
  • "Would you (re)hire this person?" Assuming the answer is yes,
  • “What would the position description be for that role?”

If that role is vastly different from the one for which you're considering the candidate, it warrants probing further.

I also always ask whether or not the referee is aware of any skeletons in the candidate’s background, and whether or not there “anything else I should know about the candidate”. Finally, I always conclude by asking if I may call the referee back if I have additional questions. If my client has questions about the reference I can't answer, this makes the second call easier.

The reference conversation should flow comfortably and the referee should never feel defensive or on guard. Overall, it’s important to remain gracious; the referee is, after all, performing a favor for both you and your finalist candidate.

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