2 Simple Steps for a Great Reference Check

When he was little, my son Evan always wanted a mom who was “just like all the other moms.”   He never got that.   Let me explain.

Back in the day, I had the good fortune to work a part time job while my kids were little. So, I had the opportunity to do the kinds of things that most mothers working full-time would love to do but just didn’t have the time.

One Halloween, in true Martha Stewart style, I made my own treats, a yummy mixture of dark chocolate bits, raisins and peanuts.  I put each treat in a small orange bag tied with a black ribbon. Then, I made a tag to attach to each (in the shape of a pumpkin, no less) that listed the contents of the bag and gave our surname, address and phone number.  You see, I wanted each family to know exactly what was in the bag; if they had any questions, they could call me.

When my kids got home from school that afternoon and saw what I was offering their friends (artistically arranged by the front door, worthy of a photograph for a food magazine), they were mortified.  “Can’t you just give a candy bar like all the other moms?” Evan said as he slunk up to his room to put on his costume (which I had made, by the way!).  My daughter, Lee, just rolled her eyes and followed her brother up the stairs.

Because it wasn’t a store bought treat, it was important for me to list the ingredients of the Halloween bags.  Even though this was practically prehistoric times, I knew some mothers might not let their kid eat it if they were unsure of the ingredients.  I wanted full disclosure about what was in the bag.

Some hiring managers would like to know what’s “inside the bag” of someone they are considering.  They wonder if their choice will turn out to be a trick or a treat. The last important step in the process, the reference check, will go a long way towards telling you “what’s in the bag” with your prospective employee.

But reference names given tend to be real supporters of the candidate and naturally will avoid comments that may be construed as negative.   So, how can you the real “ingredients” of your candidate and take the mystery out of what he’s really like? It’s simple.

There are just TWO rules to remember when checking references:

Talk to the Right People

Ask the Right Questions


Make sure your final candidates give you the references you need.  Be specific with the candidate. Here’s what we request from candidates as a reference:

  • Two former managers – Be sure you speak with someone who, like yourself, has managed your candidate.  They will be a good guide to how the candidate responds to motivation, work ethic, etc. (more about that later).
  • A customer – This is especially important when hiring a salesperson.  You want to see how your candidate comes across to prospects and customers.  Top salespeople will be happy to give you a customer reference.  They are proud of their accomplishments and many times these relationships last long after the sale is made.
  • A peer – This is not as important as the manager or customer, but a peer can give you valuable insight as to how your potential employee works in a team environment.  And, even though you may be hiring an individual contributor who may be in a remote office, remember that she has to fit in with the rest of your team.  This type of reference is especially important when you are hiring in a marketing department, for example, where one person’s work directly affects another’s and meeting deadlines may depend on close cooperation.

If a candidate cannot give you three business references (especially a candidate who has been working for more than five years), you have reason to be suspicious.  And, as a rule, we accept no personal references.


When I started my sales career, one of my best managers told me, “Ask the right questions and you’ll get the right answers.”  This is not only true in selling; this is also true in reference checking. When called on as a reference, I’m always amazed at either how general the questions are (“So, how was Mary to manage?”) or how irrelevant they are (“Did you enjoy working with Mary?”).  I wish I was kidding about these.  Bad questions will get you bad answers. 

Be more specific in your questions.  Ask the following questions:

  • How long have you known the candidate?
  • Were you involved in the hiring process or did you directly hire the candidate?
  • Did they report to you directly or dotted line? Please describe your relationship with the candidate.
  • Did the candidate consistently hit or miss goals/quotas?
  • Would you say the candidate made a substantial, average, or below average contribution to the organization? Please describe the reasons for your answer.
  • How well did the candidate perform under stressful conditions such as facing sales or project deadlines?
  • How well did the candidate deal with potential issues, such as organizational or management changes, or customer sales or service issues?
  • Were there any areas where the candidate excelled?  Any particular strengths? Please be specific.
  • Conversely, are there any areas where the candidate could use improvement? Any particular weaknesses? Please be specific.

Remember, too, that keeping your reference check in aconversational manner will boost the quality of information shared.  Be sure to take the important first step of establishing rapport with your reference to make him feel comfortable about sharing information with you.

When checking references, I also get a “rating” on other attributes such as attitude, professionalism, and initiative.  There’s a separate box on our reference check form for this.

Evan hasn’t been embarrassed about his mom in a long, long time.  We both chuckle about the “year of the hand-made treats.” Although I must admit he was pretty happy when my full-time career kicked in and I went back to passing out candy bars for Halloween.


If you’d like a copy of the Sales and Marketing Search reference check form, just click here and I’ll be happy to forward it.

And, if you’d like to check out Evan’s website and his career, it’s a real treat!


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