When was the last time checking a job candidate's references did you any good?

For many managers, a reference check is little more than a rubber stamp, the very last thing you do--or someone in human resources does--before making a formal offer. Yet consultant Lou Adler, CEO of the Adler Group, believes that's a wasted opportunity. Talking with an applicant's current and former employers can offer important insights, he says, into whether your target hire is actually a good cultural fit for your team.

"It's not a superficial aspect of [hiring]," he tells Build, explaining that reference checks can provide important caveats about the candidate's skills and personality. You just need to conduct yours effectively. Here's how.

1. Sneak up on weaknesses. 
For legal or HR reasons, many companies aren't keen to answer questions about former employees like, "What are the candidate's weaknesses?" A better way to get this information is to ask the reference to judge the candidate on a scale of 1 to 10 in various areas of competency related to the position at hand, Adler (@LouA) says.

If the reference gives a rating of 7 or 8 for a given area, ask what it would take for the candidate to achieve a 9 or 10, he suggests. This forces the reference to address the areas where candidates still need to improve, which could help inform either your decision to hire or how you approach the new hire's role at your company.

2. "Laugh if the answer is no." 
So says recruiting consultant Mel Kleiman. If you run into a manager who, for whatever reason, just won't open up, ask the reference whether they can confirm whether what the candidate said in his or her interview is true. "People will confirm what they can't tell you," Kleiman (@MelKleiman) tells Build.

You can create a system for doing this by asking candidates to rate themselves at a few competencies during the interview. Then, during the reference check, present these ratings, one by one, to the reluctant reference. Kleiman suggests asking, "Can you confirm? How about you just laugh if the answer is 'no'?"

3. Do we have a fit?
In an article for the Daily MuseShortStack CEO Jim Belosic (@shortstackjim) writes about using a candidate's references to gauge how they would fit into your company from a cultural perspective. "I also like to ask if a candidate's work area was clean or messy . . . and if he or she participated in any external activities, such as softball or volunteering. Think of what matters to you and your company culture, and use that as a guide for questions."

But tread lightly with questions like these, management consultant Alison Green (@AskAManager) cautions, because asking them risks alienating both the reference and the candidate. In an interview with BuildGreen suggests asking cultural questions that have no obviously negative answer instead. An example: "Some people thrive in fast-paced environments but sometimes err on the side of losing precision, while others are incredibly precise but do better when there's more time to focus on their work--which sounds more like Jane?"

Published on: Oct 7, 2013