"There's no way at all for us to tell whom we're vetting by simply asking a few references and taking their words at face value. That's why our agency (and several other companies I know) don't ask for references at all," my Inc.com colleague and a partner at GEM Advertising Peter Kozodoy has written.

He's right, of course. It doesn't take a PhD in psychology to understand that candidates only provide references they're 100 percent sure will sing their praises. And what's worse, if the candidate is truly terrible, his old boss has all the motivation in the world to downplay his problems and offload his worst employee on the next unsuspecting boss.

So given the inherent limitations of the reference check, should you give up on them entirely, like Kozodov? Not according to star Wharton professor Adam Grant. In his monthly Wondering advice column, Grant takes a query from a hiring manager who wants to know if it's possible to get actually honest feedback about a prospective hire from a reference check. It is, Grant responds, but only if you ask one particular type of question.

The only type of question that will get you honest feedback

As you know every reference is motivated by either loyalty to the candidate or a desire to foist him or her off on you, straight up asking about strengths and weaknesses is unlikely to get you any useful information. Instead, Grant suggests offering references two terrible options and seeing which they choose.

"My favorite way to get references to tell the truth is to give them forced choices between two undesirable qualities," he writes. What exactly does that look like in practice? Grant offers five sample questions, though obviously you can tweak the format to address whatever traits or skills you're most concerned about:

  • Too assertive or not assertive enough?

  • Too self-sacrificing or not self-sacrificing enough?

  • Overly anxious or not concerned enough?

  • Overly proactive or not proactive enough?

  • Overly detail-oriented or not detail-oriented enough?

As it's unclear which of the two possibilities is the "right" answer, the reference should be forced into actual honesty, Grant asserts. It's a simple, clever technique and as it leaves references no option but to choose one of two alternatives, it might just work.

If you're looking for more advice on how to do better references checks, then this run down of reference call advice from top VC Mark Suster can help.

Published on: Jul 5, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.