Uncovering valuable information beyond a candidate’s references

When looking at a resume, it’s no longer the case that a long tenure makes an executive candidate the better choice.

“Many of today’s executives have short stays at several companies over their career,” says Larry Ormsby, a partner at ON Partners. “That’s why it’s increasingly important as an employer to work your network and talk to references beyond those provided on a candidate’s resume.”

“It pays to know people,” says Steve Cornacchia, a partner at ON Partners. “Getting to know the candidate both through and beyond his or her network enables you to dig much deeper.”

Smart Business spoke with Ormsby and Cornacchia about referencing strategies that can help employers determine whether a candidate is truly a good fit for their organization.

How effective are a candidate’s supplied references at helping an employer understand more about the candidate?
A candidate’s handpicked references are usually people who know him or her well in a working environment. Their value is more in determining how to on-board the candidate, and how to work with and partner with that person once it’s clear the candidate is a favorite for the job.

Ideally, the references comprise successive bosses through the past five to 10 years. They’ll offer a view of the person’s performance, the culture of the company the candidate was in, how decisions were made in that climate, how the candidate operates, and where they excel and falter.

Handpicked references should be the candidate’s champions. If the best references given are positive but not energized, or lack details, that should be a warning sign.

What strategies should employers consider that could help them uncover more about a candidate’s professional experience?
A strong network enables a hiring agent to reference pretty much anyone. A robust network is the most significant tool a search firm can offer an employer. It provides the capability of tapping into unsolicited references from trusted sources that give unbiased opinions about candidates.

For employers, a good technique is to multiply references. When interviewing a provided reference, find out who else worked with the candidate and get permission to talk with that person. How the candidate responds when asked if someone can be interviewed can tell an employer something about that relationship.

There are always bad employee/employer matches, but it’s revealing to understand why the candidate didn’t want to provide that reference. The hope is the candidate is honest, admits they didn’t get along and didn’t provide the reference for fear it could be negative. That’s better than the candidate being evasive.

Employers, however, shouldn’t negate someone’s candidacy based on one reference from outside the candidate’s network. Too many times a reference has a personal issue with the candidate that’s wholly separate from the person’s work performance. Take it with a grain of salt.

Who, generally, are the best references to consult when seeking information about a job candidate?
A good target is the person who is one layer below the candidate. He or she likely doesn’t know how the candidate is packaging him or herself, so they’ll tend to be more honest and transparent. A CEO knows what a potential employer is digging for and can spin a positive message. If you’re trying to find a weak spot, go lower in the hierarchy.

What are the important questions to ask when talking with references?
After the initial in-person interview is done the areas to probe further will have been uncovered. Ask questions around those concerns.

There should also be a lot of questions that deal with functions and skill sets. Look for impact, culture fit, how they make decisions, how they interact with peers, and how they manage up and manage down. Keep in mind that success in one environment doesn’t mean success in another.

Do the referencing. Employers can fall in love with a candidate and put on blinders — they just want to get that person on-board and don’t emphasize referencing. That’s a mistake.

References are good at filling in the holes left after an interview, so do the due diligence and learn all there is to know before making a hiring decision. ●

Insights Executive Search is brought to you by ON Partners.