Insight Blog

Evaluating a Prospective Hire III: Leveraging Candidate References

In Parts I and II of this series on Evaluating Prospective Hires, we discussed how to use interview questions to assess a candidate’s motivations for pursuing a new career opportunity, and how to determine whether your organization is a good fit for an individual.

Beyond the direct interviewing of a candidate, another common way to gauge his or her potential success with your company is to conduct professional references of past and, if possible, current peers, supervisors, clients, etc.

To prepare to perform effective reference checks, at the completion of each interview, make notes of any lingering questions or concerns related to the candidate’s personality, leadership style, experience and general capabilities. These can be used as topics of conversation when conducting references on the candidate. Ask open-ended questions that are similar to the behavioral questions asked of the candidate during the interview. For example:

  • Tell me about a time when the candidate had to deal with a difficult client.

  • Tell me about a time when the candidate had to deliver bad news.

  • Tell me about a time when the candidate had to influence others without authority.

Compare and contrast the candidate’s own response with that of the individual providing the reference. If he or she has difficulty recalling a specific example, present a hypothetical situation (or use a past scenario that presented challenges similar to those the new hire may have to face), and ask the person giving the reference to address how the candidate would likely handle it.

Jim Lord, Helbling Managing Director and search consultant, suggests the following types of questions, and he stresses the importance of asking specific follow-up questions to further delve into the candidate’s style and capabilities:

  • How would you describe the candidate’s interpersonal / leadership styles?

  • How do others – peers, direct reports, clients, etc. – respond to the candidate?

  • How does the candidate handle pressure and / or criticism?

  • Can you recall a situation in which the candidate had to take a difficult stance with a client, direct report, or superior? What was the outcome?

  • Have you interacted with the candidate outside of work?

There’s a lot of pressure associated with hiring, and unfortunately, there aren’t any foolproof ways to ensure hiring the 'perfect' candidate. However, by taking the time to truly understand a candidate’s motivations, technical capabilities, personality and other intangible traits, you can increase your confidence in selecting an individual who will be successful within your company’s culture. The onboarding of a candidate who has the right cultural fit will be much smoother and, because the new hire will not have to worry about the cultural components, he or she can act naturally and focus on achieving results.