Posted on: 3/24/2023

Candidate Referencing

Why it's important and how to do it skillfully


Referencing is the most important component of any decision process in talent acquisition. Unfortunately, many hiring executives rush through referencing at the eleventh hour of the interview lifecycle and/or delegate referencing to individuals that may not conduct them with sufficient rigor or nuance. Even the most sophisticated and thoughtful search process will not produce an ideal final candidate if they are not subject to a rigorous referencing effort.

To create a comprehensive and effective referencing process, follow these guidelines:

  1. Construct a referencing framework throughout the candidate interview and assessment lifecycle
  2. Use the “reference mirror test” as an interviewing technique
  3. Carefully compare a candidate’s offered references with a list that has already been prepared
  4. Build an effective independent reference list
  5. Develop strong reference questions
  6. Allow instinct to take the planned questions to other areas to probe
  7. Choose the right team to conduct referencing

Constructing a Referencing Framework

Referencing isn’t something that should be viewed as just an end-stage recruitment activity. As candidates are interviewed, the interviewee should be constantly mindful of how aspects of the interview could point to good reference questions if the candidate makes it to a finalist. For example, during the interview one should note names of supervisors, peers, and direct reports. These names can be checked against the referencing the candidate gives you so you can quickly identify any obvious gaps and ask for clarification.

Here are some specific recommendations for constructing a future referencing framework during the course of interviewing and assessing a candidate:

  • Remember who referred you to the candidate so you can go back to them and ask why they sent the candidate to you.
  • When a candidate tells you about their accomplishments at different companies and in multiple roles, find out the names of individuals who were a part of that effort. These people will make great independent references if the candidate doesn’t include them on their reference list.
  • Make a note to fact-check a candidate’s claims about their achievements or accomplishments with the appropriate reference.
  • Always ask candidates to explain reasons for transition from one position to another and fact-check those reasons with the appropriate references.
  • Ask candidates to tell you what phrases or words they think their colleagues would use to describe them. This is one form of a “mirror test” explained in the next section. Carefully note the candidate’s answers and then ask the same question of colleagues during the reference process in order to gauge the quality of a candidate’s self-awareness.

The “Reference Mirror Test”

The “mirror test” builds context for referencing during interviews. It requires a candidate to project how they think others would describe them. For example:

You have just asked a candidate to tell you about a career accomplishment that demonstrates significant innovation and revenue growth within a crowded market vertical. In their description of the accomplishment, they mention recognition for their achievement. At that juncture, you can insert a mirror test. Let’s assume that you have already determined that their supervisor during this career period was Susan Sanders. This would then be a good time to ask, “If I were to call Susan Sanders as a reference and ask for her view on this accomplishment, what would she say?”

A referencing mirror test provides some very useful data. Inserting a question like this skillfully will typically take a candidate by surprise. When answering, the candidate will likely shed light on the following things:

  • Whether the “career accomplishment” they just tried to impress you with was truly significant enough for someone to recall and validate. For example, if the candidate responds by dismissing the likelihood that the supervisor would recall the accomplishment, your antennae should go up, and you should probe further to find out why.
  • Whether the supervisor is someone the candidate believes would be a positive reference. Typically, in the course of responding to a reference mirror test, the candidate will drop some clues – verbally or through body language – that will tell you if they trust that the supervisor will be a positive reference. If you get a sense that the candidate isn’t likely to offer that supervisor as a reference, note that and plan to speak with the supervisor as an “independent reference” (addressed later in this article).
  • Additional insight to the candidate’s self-awareness. When the candidate tells you what their supervisor would say, record that information and then see, during your actual referencing process, if the candidate’s perception of what the supervisor would say is reasonably accurate.

Judging the Value of References Offered by the Candidate

When you decide to make a job offer to someone, you typically ask that individual to provide you with some references to contact. We call these “candidate references”, and our firm’s practice is to require the candidate to provide us with the names: two supervisors, two peers, and two subordinates. But we also contact additional references we call “independent references.” These are individuals that we know the candidate worked for or with but were not on the list of references given to us by the candidate.  The final section of this article addresses independent references.

Candidates often strategically omit references who they feel have negative feelings about them, and a recruiter or hiring executive shouldn’t simply accept the references offered by a candidate without reviewing them carefully. When you first receive a candidate’s reference list, you should always go back to your interview notes and the candidate’s resume so you can check to see how recent the references are, if there are any obvious holes in the list (e.g. no supervisors offered as references for the past two jobs), if the list has a reasonable balance of diversity, and if the candidate followed your instructions. If you find the list lacking, go back to the candidate to ask why he or she hasn’t included key people or to ask for more diversity or more recent references. A candidate’s response to those requests will be revealing in their own right, will help direct your questions of the provided references, and will also contribute to your selection of independent references.

Independent Referencing

Independent references are those that have not been offered by the candidate. You will not have completed a substantive referencing effort if you can’t uncover some credible insight to a candidate’s weaknesses or blind spots. A candidate will always provide references that are going to be generally positive, and so you are likely to get the most valuable insights through conversations with independent references. If you or the recruitment support services you are working with do not perform independent references, then you are not getting a best practice referencing service.

The best way to build an independent reference list is to consistently ask, during the interviews, for the specific names of colleagues or supervisors that the candidate refers to. It’s really easy to do. Here are a few examples:

  • In a walkthrough of his resume, a candidate tells you he was recruited from Company A to Company B. Before he moves on, ask, “Oh, who recruited you to Company B?” Keep the names and positions of these individuals in a separate margin next to your interview notes so you can easily find them when it is time to do references.
  • A candidate has just finished telling you that he finished his last year with revenues and profits above target. You can then ask, “Who were the key contributors in your organization to that success?” If the candidate refers to generic positions in his answer, come back and ask for the names – e.g., Keep lobbing the ball back over the net until you get the information you want.

Developing Strong Reference Questions

When speaking with candidate references, it’s best to use a handful of standard questions that you supplement that with a list of customized reference questions that have come up during the interviews as areas to probe. It’s also a good practice to ask your client if there are any specific areas that should be probed during referencing. Then tailor a number of questions to topics that have been identified as areas that to get more perspective on.

A skilled recruiter can tease out credible input through these customized questions, even when speaking with the candidate’s references, if they are thoughtfully constructed. Standard reference questions should not be used alone, because they are just not sufficiently provocative. Customized questions are less anticipated and, if delivered skillfully, can force a candidate reference to be forthcoming, even with information that isn’t entirely positive. The trick is to make them realize that they risk tainting their reference overall if they won’t go “off script” and answer your questions with some reasonable candor.

Follow Your Instincts

Perhaps the most important thing to avoid in referencing is getting trapped into following your intended list of questions verbatim. It is more important to carefully listen to a reference’s answers – in part for what they don’t say in as much as for what they do say. And if they don’t really answer the question, it is important to rephrase it in a way that might elicit a better response. You also want the flexibility to spontaneously add another question that follows a thread that might prove to be very important – perhaps on a topic that you hadn’t considered asking about.

For this reason, it is critical to have skilled interviewers do referencing. These are individuals who are trained to detect nuance and who are not afraid to push for more from reluctant references – many of whom are very senior executives who aren’t used to push-back.

Choosing the right team to conduct referencing

Choosing the right team or individual to conduct referencing is perhaps the most important decision to make in the recruitment process. Inexplicably, most organizations outsource all of their referencing to a referencing service or recruiters, or they hand it off to junior HR employees who typically have not ever met the candidate or been part of the hiring process. If the individual making the reference calls lacks the context and/or proximity to the recruitment effort, you’re wasting your time. He or she won’t have the ability to pick up the scent of an unspoken concern or know how to blow down a house made of straw with an unexpectedly probing question.

A junior recruiter or a referencing agency will likely not be able to bring the context, interviewing skills, or confidence to do best-practice referencing for senior level candidates. Even the most experienced HR partner may not be able to conduct adequately rigorous references if they haven’t been involved in your interview process. If that is the case, it is important for the hiring executive to play a primary role in conducting references.

References should be done by a very senior level executive – either the lead consultant/partner at your recruitment firm, a very senior level HR executive who has been an actively engaged participant in the recruitment and who has interviewed the candidate in person, or by the hiring executive. Ideally, referencing should be done by some combination of all of these individuals.

Effective references require: 1) a sensitive ear; 2) a nuanced manner of interviewing and questioning; 3) a certain level of gravitas to persuade and compel both candor and honesty; 4) first-hand knowledge of the candidate; and 5) context for the position, its relationship to the overall business strategy, and how it will fit within the organization. These form the essential tool kit for an effective reference. If you rely on anyone who doesn’t have all of these skills to do your references, you may as well not do them.

SRI’s Commitment to Best-Practice Referencing

At SRI Executive, we hold ourselves to the highest standards of referencing. We do a superb job of referencing, because we adhere to the strategies just discussed.  That said, it is ideal to engage the hiring executive in the referencing process as well. But often by the time our clients are ready to make an offer to a candidate, they want to move things along as quickly as possible and so they typically ask us to do 100% of the referencing. While we are happy to do that, if asked, we always recommend the client make at least one or two reference calls themselves. One of these calls should be to the candidate’s most recent or most significant supervisor.

Why? Because talent acquisition and retention is the most singularly important and impactful activity/responsibility of every senior level operating executive, and referencing is the most important part of a successful recruitment. The hiring executive must do some referencing in order to 1) demonstrate to the candidate and the organization that rigorous due diligence is important enough to warrant the hiring executive’s personal involvement; 2) to force the hiring executive to hit the pause button, after deciding to make an offer, and think about any and all remaining questions or concerns about the candidate rather than get caught up in the desire to get them on board ASAP; and 3) to give the hiring executive an opportunity to ask one of the candidate’s supervisors how he/she would recommend managing the candidate for optimal engagement and performance.

In conclusion, the best hiring decisions are made when thoughtful and skillful referencing is required and truly valued. The ideas and strategies in this article will help you establish and sustain a productive referencing philosophy and approach to get to the ultimate goal – acquiring and retaining the best talent for your organization.




Willa Perlman

Chief Executive Officer, North America