The next time you're lining up interviewees to fill an open position, think about this: The more hiring experience I get, the less I rely on my interviewing skills—and the more I rely on blind reference checking.
In my earlier years, I'd say I based 90% of the hiring decision on what my colleagues and I learned in the interviewing process, and 10% on following up with references the candidate provided. Today, I'd say I base 45% of the hiring decision on the interviews, 10% on the provided reference checks and 45% on the blind reference checks that I do myself.
I can find out 10 times more from a colleague or a friend of a friend that worked with a candidate than I can uncover in an interview. If I have a colleague who worked in the trenches alongside the candidate, that person will know far more than I could ferret out in a 60-minute chat.
Find a Connection
The good news is that doing these blind reference checks is getting easier. The hardest part used to be finding someone who worked with the candidate somewhere along the line, but LinkedIn has made that easy. It will tell you who you know that is connected to the candidate by one or two degrees.
Once you have a couple of contacts, reach out to them via LinkedIn or email asking for a few minutes to talk about your candidate. If you reach out to several folks and no one responds, that in itself may be a bad sign about your candidate.
Ask the Right Question
Once you connect with your blind reference, you'll need to overcome his or her natural reluctance to be totally transparent. My favorite trick is asking, "On a scale of 0 to 10, what is the likelihood you would hire this person again in the future?" Once you get the answer, follow up: "Why not a 10?"
In term of the references the candidate gives me, I already know they are going to be glowingly positive, so I don't put them in the critical path of the hiring decisions. Once I've made up my mind to hire the person, I might call a couple of them to get some guidance on how to manage the new hire to ensure I bring out the best in her.