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Eliciting Candor From References

coffee-cup-desk-pen-mediumEliciting Candor from References

Most references will not intentionally give you negative information. Yet, when you are considering hiring someone onto your team, the candid feedback of people who have worked with the candidate is one of the most valuable sources of pre-hire insight.

How do you get this candid feedback?  By asking questions that give the reference permission to share candidly without putting themselves in the position of saying something that can be perceived as directly negative or critical.

I always start by asking questions that invite the reference to speak positively about the candidate, before asking those few questions that may potentially be less comfortable for the reference to answer.

Here are some of the questions I ask in reference interviews that seem to elicit candid responses:

  • We don’t expect to hire the perfect person, but if Jen was hired, we would like to be prepared to reinforce her where needed – we would be committed to her growth.  What do you see as an area of growth for Jen?  In other words, what could she change with coaching or professional development that would make her even more effective?
  • What type of work environment would be the wrong setting for Peter?
  • What is the most important thing the person hiring James should know about him?
  • On a scale of 1 – 10, how effective was Tanya’s work? (What would have made her rate higher?)
  • Most of us perform more effectively with certain types of support in place.  What type of support did Rachel need to be most effective?

My new favorite reference question generally comes at the end and the response to this question supersedes anything else the reference may have said about the candidate:

  • On a scale of 1 – 10 how does Rohan rank compared to others you’ve known in a similar role? (If less than a 9 or 10, I ask what would have made him a 9 or 10.  If a 9 or 10, I may also ask what made him stand out from the crowd.)

Depending on whether I have time, I may ask one or both of the following:

  • Is there anything that I should have asked you and didn’t?
  • Is there anything you were hoping I would not ask you?

These last two questions generally elicit little more than a chuckle – but the few times the questions have been answered, the information has been crucial.

What is one especially effective reference question that you always ask?

Note:  I wish I could claim credit for all these questions.  I’ve borrowed along the way, in particular from my previous employer The Dingman Company.  The “new favorite” is borrowed from Scott Cook, Co-founder of Intuit.

Donna White

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