3 Strategic Objectives for Informed Reference Checking


True Story: Talking with the board chairman of a new client organization a few year ago, I could tell he was a bit distraught. He had been the head of a search committee that had selected their last president—one who had lasted less than three years. In the eyes of several trustees, that hire had been a dismal failure. That was the reason they retained our firm.

The board chairman had checked the candidate’s two highly regarded references, both who he knew personally. One was a nationally renowned university professor who had taught the candidate in graduate school. The other was a prominent attorney who served with my client on another board. Both of these references knew the candidate well and gave him glowing recommendations also-uninformed.

My client, the board chairman, had spent months reflecting on what had gone wrong and how they could have missed it so badly. He bemoaned the fact that they had failed to take into consideration the context of those recommendations. It was one of the board’s primary mistakes. The professor had known the candidate well as a student—thirty years prior—and had followed the candidate’s career from afar. The attorney only knew the candidate as a fellow board member, in which case they met two to three times a year. Consequently, neither of these men knew the candidate in the context of his current work environment, and neither had seen him operate in a managerial or leadership capacity.

 The two recommendations were based on the candidate’s performance as a student and fellow board member—how they assumed he would perform in the role as the organization’s president. The board’s reference-checking strategy resulted in the uninformed leading.

3 Strategic Objectives for Informed Reference Checking

Every search is different, and so is the reference checking process. Here are a few general strategies for reference checking. As a rule, we like to have Board members work with us in checking references.  They can ask questions in “real time” and not have the response filtered through another set of eyes and ears.  Board members frequently have to employ various tactics to get the information they need, but they must be committed to the overarching strategies.

Strategic Objective #1: Reference checks are a part of the selection process, not a last-step formality. In the previous hire supervised by my new client, the candidate did not supply references from his current or previous jobs—neither supervisors, subordinates, or peers. This happens frequently because most candidates don’t want anyone at their current job to know they are applying for another position. That is very understandable and in some cases board members can navigate their way around those hesitations. For instance, you can check references from previous employers if they are recent and the job descriptions are similar. But generally, the candidate needs to know that at some point in the selection process, a board member will need to talk to their current employer. In some cases, there are issues with previous relationships or job performances about which candidates would rather you not know. Those issues may or may not be valid, but discussions about those things need to be included in the selection process.

Here is an important thing to remember: If you agree to not talk to the candidate’s current employer or you agree not to contact them until you have decided on that particular candidate, reference checking verges on becoming merely a final formality. It is no longer a part of the selection process. You have allowed the candidate to short-circuit a key element of your interview and reference checking strategy.

Strategic Objective #2: Reference checking needs to be performance-based. One of the key strategies for board members interviewing perspective candidates is asking performance-based questions. Instead of asking what candidates would do in hypothetical situations, it is much better to focus on how they actually performed in real situations (see “Behavioral Interviewing for Board Members”). The same strategy should be applied to reference checking. Board members need to ask the same kind of performance-related questions of a candidate’s references.

Strategic Objective #3: Do all that you can to get a 360-degree perspective on the candidate. In recent years, 360-degree interview has been the standard approach in human resources circles. This strategy is to get to know the candidate through the experience of those with whom s/he has worked closely (i.e. supervisors, subordinates, and peers).

Often you don’t get a sufficient variety of references to do this. Candidates usually list only the most famous and influential. Consequently, your will have to make some specific reference requests. Depending on the structure and diversity on you search committee, you may want to consider peer-to-peer reference checking. In other words, a board member interviews the candidate’s supervisor, a peer interviews his/her peer, a subordinate interviews his/her subordinate. Just as behavioral interviewing strategy is applied to reference checking, so should 360-degree interviewing strategy.

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Dr. Tommy Thomas Tommy Thomas is Lead Partner of JobFitMatters® as well as Board Member and Managing Director of parent entity SIMA® International. He specializes in cabinet-level retained executive search for nonprofit and faith-based organizations.