4 Tips for Getting the Most out of Reference Checks

By Erin Reedy, VP, Executive Search

Many people think of reference checks as a rubber stamp on a hiring decision. Candidates are putting you in touch with their biggest supporters, so of course you can predict what they are going to say, right? Not always.

When done correctly, reference checks can provide extremely helpful information for making a hire and beyond. Here are four ways to make sure that conversations with references are insightful and useful:

Request a diverse range of references. In order to get a good sense of what a person would contribute to your organization, it’s important to talk to a variety of people – supervisors, colleagues and staff. While a direct report can speak to management skills, a colleague might be better suited to speak to the person’s ability to be a strong teammate or work cross-functionally. In addition, for some roles, it can be helpful to ask to speak to an outside stakeholder such as a funder or partner to really get a feel for how someone is perceived externally. A good rule of thumb is to request 4-5 references: 1-2 supervisors, 1-2 direct reports, and 1-2 colleagues.

Tactfully solicit critical feedback. Everyone who agrees to serve as a reference knows they will be asked to say something about the candidate that is less than flattering. You will have a much better chance of gathering helpful insight if you both couch the question in the right way and ask it in multiple ways. “Everyone has areas for potential growth. What are some of those areas for the candidate?” This approach takes some of the sting out of it and reminds the reference that it’s okay and perfectly normal for people to have things they are not as good at. If you’re not getting anywhere, you might ask, “What do you think the candidate would say are their greatest opportunities for growth?” Ask a supervisor what critical feedback he or she offered during performance reviews. If the reference glosses over a weakness, ask them to elaborate a bit more to see what you might find out.

Customize your questions. Customize your questions to dig deeper with the right people. Ask a direct report how the candidate provided critical feedback, but ask a supervisor how they received it. If a person seems a bit timid for the role, ask for an example of a time when they had to step outside of their comfort zone and address a large audience. If a person does not bring fundraising skills, ask for examples of how they have sold the organization in the past to other partners.

Think beyond the hire. References can provide useful insight into how to establish a strong working relationship with a new hire. Ask a former supervisor for their thoughts on what motivates and demotivates a candidate. Ask a colleague about the best way to provide critical feedback. Ask people to describe the kind of team environment in which the candidate will thrive. This kind of insight can jumpstart the process of onboarding a new candidate.





Erin Reedy

Vice President, Executive Search

As Vice President, Executive Search at Koya, Erin focuses on conducting social enterprise searches for leading non-profit organizations nationwide. With a background in community development finance and a strong search background, Erin enjoys establishing strong client relationships that result in exceptional placed candidates for her searches.

Prior to joining Koya, Erin worked for Commongood Careers for six years and managed over 140 searches for nonprofit clients across the country. Previously, Erin worked for 11 years at the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation. In this capacity, she oversaw multifamily development that resulted in the creation of over 200 new affordable units annually as well as the preservation and renovation of 2,000 existing affordable units annually. Her background also includes work in nonprofit public relations, community outreach, research, and special projects.

Erin holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from The College of the Holy Cross and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Erin volunteers her time with Reach Out and Read RI, JumpStart RI and Girls on the Run RI.