February 8th, 2022

TJ Kastning

“I can’t go back to yesterday – because I was a different person then”

Lewis Carroll

New clients and candidates often ask us why we bother running references. It’s a fair question. Many experiences with references are shallow and unhelpful.

The stereotype is that nice things are said by people expected to say nice things. Little substance, nothing insightful, certainly nothing that may encourage a hiring authority to reconsider a hire or change their management approach.

But you can level up at reference checking.

You can read about providing references from the candidate perspective here.


  • Reference are good for good candidates. The candidate should know the references are not a witch-hunt or a dirty-secrets finding process. This is about cross-referencing their interview performance with past relational performance, which should confirm perceptions and reinforce their credibility. Professionals embrace references with confidence.
  • References are just as much about who the reference is as what they say and how they behave. Social credibility matters.
  • Professional references are investments of credibility. Credible people will avoid vouching for the un-credible.
  • The level of transparency a reference feels comfortable with indicates their level of professionalism, integrity, and personal investment. This reflects well on the candidate to provide references who will speak candidly.
  • No honest reference should be entirely positive. This isn’t to say strong candidates won’t have strong positive references, but no one is perfect and everyone should be striving to reach their next level. An insightful reference will share what that next level is for the candidate. This information should be received with gratitude as it indicates where company leadership should be prepared to invest to continue the candidate’s growth.
  • If the reference provider respects the candidate, they will provide a reference. The only time references get cagey about providing insight is if there is a lack of trust between them and the candidate. They have something negative to share and are not confident the information will be put to productive use.


  • The references are not responding. Ask the candidate when they last spoke with the reference and why the person isn’t responding. A reference that won’t invest the time indicates a lack of relationship between the candidate and reference, suggesting a weaker relationship than the candidate realizes. They may not have strong relationships.
  • The reference avoids saying anything negative. This behavior indicates a bias towards the candidate, regardless of the truth. While understandable, on one level, it reflects insecurity about the truth which should not be disregarded. Strong references recognize the importance of being optimistically critical.
  • The reference refuses to share anything beyond dates of employment and maybe makes mention of confidentiality. This vague warning should not be ignored! They are implicitly saying they cannot provide a good-faith reference. What is particularly troubling is a candidate who apparently does not understand this about their reference.
  • The references provided are all distant professional relationships. If you see this, ask for closer relationships. We prefer to see past managers, co-workers, and close trade partners who spent meaningful time with the candidate. Be wary if the candidate cannot provide close professional references.
  • Family references While they mean well, families cannot reliably comment on their professional performance.


  • Smile
  • Explain what goals you have for the references so the candidate understands your intentions and can cooperate to secure useful references.
  • The candidate should inform their references about your reach-out, explain the opportunity and their interest in it, and encourage the reference provider to be entirely honest. If the reference provider feels free to be completely honest, the conversation will be easy and enjoyable.
  • Schedule politely. Email and text prior to the call. Respect the reference provider’s time.
  • Plan your open-ended questions beforehand. Do not ask yes or no questions.
  • Explain who you are, your intention of understanding the candidate’s personality, professional performance, and growth potential, and ask for their help.
  • Expressly communicate your gratitude for their investment of time and insight. You are not entitled to their time.
  • Look for opportunities to help the reference provider. They are taking their time to help you and the candidate. If you can reciprocate their contribution with referrals, etc, do it.
  • If the reference provider wants to take the lead in the conversation, let them, but don’t lose track of your questions. Some people are helpful with the information they volunteer, some people are capable of steering the conversation to avoid certain topics.
  • Be willing to ask questions twice if you didn’t get a direct answer. It doesn’t mean they were trying to avoid the question. Sometimes the second attempt is better and you get another layer of information.
  • Be aware of non-answers. For example, a non-answer to this behavioral question; “Can you tell me about a time you saw them handle a challenging client relationship?” Non-answer: “Yes – They handled clients very well.” It can be tempting to accept this answer but you should ask again for a challenging example.
  • The active-listening follow-up question is worth twice as much as the first question. People don’t tend to volunteer helpful information until they understand you are really interested, so you have to work for it with quality follow-up questions.


How long have you known them and how have you worked together? This question provides context on their relationship to ask appropriate follow-up questions.

What are they most talented at? What are their strengths? What are the inherent weaknesses that come with these strengths? This is an opportunity for them to brag about their colleague, but also address their strengths are weaknesses in certain situations. For example; direct communicators can be overly abrasive in sensitive situations. Followup question; “How do they adjust when the situation demands careful tact? What if they come on a bit strong?”

What is it like to have them disagree with you? Or you with them? Ask this to gain insight on the emotional experience of working through a problem with the candidate.

When was the last time you didn’t see eye to eye? How did it get resolved? Ask for examples and find the crux of the challenge to understand how they performed.

How have you have seen them be helpful to others? Do they invest in relationships by helping others be successful?

How would you rate the quality of their work? You can’t say 7! 7 is the easy answer. The delightful thing about this question is no one gets a 10, and you can easily ask a follow-up question about where they can grow to push towards that 10.

Can you tell me about a time you coached them on something? How teachable are they? Eager to learn? Too proud? What kind of stuff gets them excited to learn?

What’s a skill you’ve seen them grow? Do they grow skills through their discipline and passion or are they constantly pushed by their superiors?

How would you describe their organizational skills? Many jobs require a person to manage many small details at a time.

Would you trust them to write an email to a client to solve a complex problem? What about serving difficult clients face to face? Ask these questions to understand the limits of their communicative diplomacy.

What are the limits of their skills with technology? Most people have some technology skills so asking where their limits are yields better answers than asking if they have them.

How did they come to leave your firm? Alternatively: Would you hire them? Alternatively: Would you want to work with them again? This depends on the reference provider’s role.

What is one thing their manager can invest in to benefit them the most? Talking directly about a person’s weaknesses might not be easy but asking from a position of optimism and investment can encourage more insight into the investment you will need to make.

Where do you see them in three years? This is a trajectory question. Five years is too far out.

Those are all my questions. I really appreciate your insight and time. Is there anything you would like to add?

What can I do to benefit you?


The point of a reference is NOT to make a hire/no hire decision or confirm it.

The point is to get perspective. References will bring up points that suggest asking certain questions in the next interview. Use the data to mold your conversation topics to the candidate.