The Company You Keep: How to Evaluate References

How can you access all the insight into job applicants that references can provide? Here are four questions to ask.

As an interviewer, I consider the most telling part of any job application to be the references. Candidates will carefully curate their cover letter, résumé, and interview performance. They can present themselves in any way they wish, at times embellishing or outright deceiving a potential employer in an attempt to get a job. References ground their claims in reality. You can understand who the applicant is by listening carefully to what references say—and often, just as importantly, what they don’t say. When I call references, I get a sense of the individual’s impact on their colleagues and workplace.

How can you access all the insight into job applicants that references can provide? You should ask four questions about a candidate’s references to find your winning candidate.

1. Who Did They List?

Before you even pick up the phone to call references, you can already begin to get a sense of the applicant and the caliber of their work. I initially evaluate if the applicant understood and executed the assignment. First, did they include an appropriate number of references? The number of references listed will depend on the job they are seeking. Most applicants should include three to four references. Candidates applying for executive positions should include five to seven. If the list is overly long or conspicuously short, it makes me question if a candidate is able to grasp a format and work within parameters.

Second, what is the composition of references? References from a variety of backgrounds have the best chance of giving you a true picture of the applicant’s ability and character. If a candidate spent 20 years at one organization but hasn’t included a single reference who can speak to that time, it’s a red flag. A strong candidate will have nothing to hide. They also will understand the purpose of references and give you a representative sample of colleagues.

2. Were They Expecting Your Call?

An applicant should never list a reference without their permission. Though we all know this, applicants will sometimes cut corners or take liberties. If a reference has no idea why you are calling them—or worse, sounds perturbed at the license taken—it should give you pause. You want a candidate who is thorough in their preparation and considerate of others. This caveat should apply to a relatively small number of candidates, but I have encountered it enough in my career that it bears mentioning. I have learned never to ignore when an applicant transgresses the fundamental courtesy of asking permission.

3. Can They Offer Examples?

When I speak with a reference, I am not only listening to hear if they recommend a candidate or not but why they recommend them. Do they speak in vague generalities or offer concrete instances that illustrate their endorsement? I often begin by asking open-ended questions such as, “What was your experience working with Mark?” or “How would you characterize Sarah’s leadership approach?” Once I have a sense of their relationship, or if the reference needs a little help focusing, I will ask specific questions, such as, “Can you share a time they had to adapt to an unexpected challenge?” or “Have you observed them handling conflict with a colleague?” Through gleaning specifics, you can get an impression of what it’s like to work with this individual on a daily basis.

4. Do They Enjoy Working with the Candidate?

In addition to what they think about a candidate, I want to know how a reference feels about them. A candidate can have the best technical skills in the industry, but if they alienate their colleagues, creating strife and dysfunction, they will be a net loss for any employer. You are not hiring a lone employee but a member of a team. References are your best opportunity to ascertain collaborative skills and cultural fit. Specific skills can be taught. Disposition and character cannot. I’ve met some HR managers who distrust references since they are not disinterested third parties. I think that it is precisely because they are not wholly detached that they are valuable. A high-caliber professional will engender respect and loyalty in their colleagues. Understanding why a reference thinks highly of a candidate brings their strengths into sharper relief.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once observed, “Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are.” That’s because our associates reveal our priorities and values. Through strategic conversation with references, I can confirm if a candidate is a potential asset or a liability for my organization—before making a costly mistake.

Cheryl Hyatt
Co-founder of Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search, Cheryl Hyatt is passionate about helping organizations identify, hire, train, and cultivate the leaders they need to propel their institutions forward. Hyatt brings 30-plus years of management and organizational leadership experience to her work with clients at Hyatt-Fennell. Her breadth of experience, knowledge, and contacts makes her sought after professionally in her field.