Reference Checks Are Worth Your Time



Recently, I was interviewing a Controller exploring new opportunities.  She had been with the same company for many years, and I asked her about references. She replied, “just look at my LinkedIn testimonials.  Those should be fine as references. ”I had to tell her that, while such testimonials were a terrific validation of her capabilities and professionalism, they are insufficient as legitimate references for a job opportunity.

A reference can help align the right candidate with the right job, but it must be more than just a few favorable thoughts shared on social media by an acquaintance or colleague.  Effective references are honest assessments of a candidate’s character, work, and the outcomes resulting from that work.Some argue that references are worthless.

After all, why would anyone connect you with a person who would speak negatively?

That statement is true in the hands of an amateur. But in the hands of a professional, referencing is a hugely valuable exercise where true insights can be shared, strengths and weaknesses explored.  Yes, it is even true that in a reference call, a professional dialog can occur leading to the realization that the person being discussed would not be the right fit for the role.

Exceptional recruiters know how to derive value from the reference checking process.

They don’t go with ‘check a box’ queries, but behavioral questions that get to the essence of the candidate’s defining qualities.  The desired approach allows the recruiter to unearth a sense of story about the candidate, revealing behaviors and qualities that will help define how they will fit into not only the available role but also the company culture.

Further, the savvy recruiter asks for references across the spectrum – peers, subordinates, bosses. And ideally the candidate will be reference checked in these three areas at each point in their career growth. In an executive search this can result in a dozen references – where upon a clear picture should start to emerge.

This is especially true when behavioral questions such as this are posed:

“When I am conducting your reference, I will focus both on your strengths and weaknesses. What do you expect your references to tell me?”  

“When I inquire about areas where you need to improve, how do you think they will respond?”

For elite recruiters, the days of questions like “On a scale of 1-10, how are their people skills?” are a thing of the past.  

The questions take a more anecdotal, narrative approach, inviting references to recollect situations and stories about the candidate that provide an accurate sense of who they are, what motivates them, and how they engage to get results.  For example:

  • Tell me about a time Rick had to deal with a difficult client.
  • Tell me about a time that Janelle had to overcome challenging circumstances to deliver for a client.
  • Tell me about Lin’s approach to working with his colleagues.

Rather than terse, one-word answers, this approach allows for references to expand on the qualities of the candidate, opening possibilities for dialogue that will truly help the recruiter determine which candidates are best to share with their client. These questions are best asked in a 360° fashion - to supervisors, colleagues, and subordinates alike, across the spectrum of the candidates’ interactions -  to get a full picture of how the candidate works and how they respond to different situations.  

While it might sound like a cliché to say, “What one has done in the past is likely what they will do in the future”, it stands as a strong litmus for measuring someone’s approach to their work.  For recruiters and employers, it’s a smart business move to make this assumption, as it’s the most accurate way to evaluate talent.

The information gleaned from the references is then shared with the client, either before or after the candidate interviews with their prospective employer.  Ideally, the responses offered by the references serve to reinforce positive attributes of the candidate, while providing a consistent picture of any areas that need improvement.The ultimate outcome for this whole process is to gain a clear, encompassing understanding of the behaviors, character traits, and work habits of the top candidates vying for a specific job.  

As an employer, it gives you confidence that you have a keen awareness of who is onboarding with your company.  As a prospective employee, it gives you assurances that the company hiring you knows exactly who they are getting, so you will truly be a Match.

So, while LinkedIn recommendations can be a very positive tool, they are far from the defining referral that one seeks when a job opportunity arises.  The best recruiters know this and will work with you - candidate and client alike - to ensure that references are leveraged to create the most ideal match possible.

If you’d like to learn more about how Accountants One helps companies and candidates find their ideal MATCH, contact Dan Erling of Accountants One at 770-395-6969 or

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