Best Reference Check Strategy Ever

In an excerpt from his book Hiring Smart, Pierre Mornell reveals the best reference check strategy I’ve heard of. It’s fast and tip toes around the liability issues: ask a person’s references to call you back if the person was outstanding.

Call references at what you assume will be their lunchtime–you want to reach an assistant or voice mail. If it’s voice mail, leave a simple message. If it’s an assistant, be sure that he or she understands the last sentence of your message. You say: “Jane Jones is a candidate for (the position) in our company. Your name has been given as a reference. Please call me back if the candidate was outstanding.” The results are both immediate and revealing. If the candidate is outstanding, I guarantee that people will respond quickly and want to help. Take such a response as a green light. Proceed to the next level by checking out the individual. However, if only 2 or 3 of the 10 references selected by the candidate return your call, this message is also loud and clear. And yet – No derogatory information has been shared. No libelous statements have been made. No confidences or laws have been broken.

Brilliant. Mornell also advises you to ask the candidate beforehand, “What am I likely to hear — positive and negative — when I call your references?”


Elsewhere in the article, Mornell suggests saying “We have about five more minutes…” before closing the interview. This will prompt a last-minute, crucial disclosure or statement from the candidate:

Pay attention when the candidate says, “By the way…,” “Oh, one more thing…,” and “I almost forgot…,” which means, “This is the most important thing I’m going to say.” In my psychiatry practice, I always announced when we were coming to the end of an hour, both as the timekeeper and because I knew there was another patient in my waiting room. Men and women invariably say something that’s really important at this point, regardless of the time we’ve already spent together.

15 comments on “Best Reference Check Strategy Ever
  • Discounts the fact that humans like to take the easy path forward, and unless they have a personal relationship with the referencee, will not take the time to make the call. This is basic human behaviour and one where if you discount it, will see you discounting people who may be perfect. However, if the aim is to find only people build strong relationships with those that then become references for them, then yes – this strategy will work.

  • true if we are talking about sales people – not always true for those that perform less, appreciated, roles such as auditors, change managers, etc.

    I have come across many who are very good at their role, but do not build up the personal “boys club” style relationships at the workplace, because it may affect their professional judgement. These are people who will get good references, but mainly from executives who will give it when captured, but will not “call back” a recruitment form or a potential employer because their time is far more valuable.

    What is important is to note that this is one of many good strategies to utilise, but as with many things, be aware of what you are using and what you are trying to achieve.

    I find this advice too simplistic for those that do not realise it requires judicial implementation, and then wonder why they have “the best people on earth” working for them, but the business is not going forward.

    Sometimes, you need to consider hiring the person who asked forgiveness rather than permission, bent noses, finalised the project and moved on because they want the next challenge than the one who was universally loved, but is looking for a new opportunity because they no longer have a place there.

  • Even the most virtuous senior will have business priorities and the call back may get pushed down (to evening) and eventually forgotten. Some may even take it as outright arrogance because it’s your purpose more than his.

    I think the best way is to send a polite email requesting them to write back at leisure.

  • I don’t buy the reference check strategy…it’s a gimmick and might work sometimes, but for most kinds of jobs is likely to increase the time you spend looking for a candidate.

    But, I like your second suggestion. In my experience too, sometimes creating a rush causes people to get to something that’s been bothering them. Heck, it behave that way too some times popping out the thing festering in my mind when rushed after not tackling the issue for hours on end.

  • This practice effectively creates a closed system favoring the employer, sanctioning opinion as truth without balance, disregards the laws the country has ratified as in the interests of the majority, and invites discrimination and a less diverse workplace, which ultimately leads to a less competitive economy. If an employer is involved in illegal activity and an employee has gained knowledge of that, that employee may find they are blacklisted simply to contain that. Your practice would sanction that. That is just one example. I am appalled at the short sighted small minded endorsement of this “tip-toe around the law”. Have we learned nothing from the fallout over the last year about the consequences of a lack of transparency or why laws should either be observed or changed rather than skirted? Fast isn’t good.

  • As for reference checking advice, I agree that asking references to call back if the candidate was ‘outstanding’ is not a reliable or valid methodology. Also has great potential to discriminate against certain groups of candidates. Plus…the telephone…the phone tag, the time it takes to conduct one, etc. are deterrants to both recruiters and former employers. We find great efficiency and success with our online pre-hire 360 reference-checking tool. An average of 4.5 references per candidate are gathered (85% response rate); yields the ability to identify ‘at risk’ hires.

    As for the interview tip mentioned, I plan to incorporate that advice during my very next interview. Thanks!

  • I don’t think this changes the liability issues. If it comes out in court that a reference, who had previously been contacted by the candidate asking to respond to reference requests, did not return a call because the message said only to call back in the event the candidate was outstanding, then this is a constructive statement, equal to saying on the phone that the candidate was “not outstanding.” It might be a little harder to find out that this is what happened – but that’s only if the technique remains relatively rare.

  • Ben, the naysayers have a strong point here. Many large companies, in order to protect themselves against lawsuits, do no more than confirm a past employee’s service with a company, no matter how good or bad that employee was. Asking for a call back “if he was outstanding” puts HR folk/managers at these companies in the position of either: 1) breaking company policy by implying the candidate’s quality with a return phone call or 2) doing harm to an otherwise good candidate by not calling back.

    It’s a clever idea but unfortunately it ignores the reality of how many employers now operate.

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  • Ben!
    As an HR i feel this is really a good approach. If i have someone who is outstanding candidate i would love to be a referee for him/her. I would say, We would love to have him in our company but as we are having few financial problem we couldn’t retain him. We would love to have him back as soon as the condition improves.

    But i do have another point on this. Just because you don’t get prompt reply doesn’t mean that they weren’t good candidate as people are living in a world that has been inspired by 4 hour work week and email or phone or other media fast. Usually, this method might work though.

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