Rearview mirrorChecking references is a waste of time — usually.

After all, who in their right mind would risk giving you the name of a reference that might say bad things about them? Naturally, candidates only offer references whom they believe will compliment their work, honesty, and reliability.

Verification of employment dates and job titles can be obtained by contacting the human resources departments of previous employers – but don’t expect HR to provide much more information about a candidate. HR pros have been trained well not to offer much help here.

So, does this mean references are always worthless? Not necessarily. Next time you are checking a candidate’s references, try asking a few behavioral interview questions. You may be surprised at what you learn.

Use Behavioral Interview Questions to get an Honest Answer

Let’s take a new look at a trusted hiring tool, the behavioral interview question, and consider using it in a different way. I discussed behavioral interviewing in an earlier post, but I’d like today to offer a new approach to this tactic: using it to draw valuable information out of references.

Consider this example: Recently, I hired for a critical position in our company. It was known and discussed during previous interviews with the finalist, Jason, that budgets would be constrained at first. He understood we were a privately held startup with the typical challenges and pace of any such company. Any viable candidate would have to be self-sufficient, hard-working, and willing to do whatever it takes to make the company successful.

I gave this background information to Jason’s former supervisor before asking the following questions:

  1. Tell me about a time when Jason had to deliver on a project where he did not have all of the resources he needed.
  2. Give me an example of a time when Jason had to start from scratch and build a new team.
  3. Describe for me the environment in which Jason did his best work.
  4. Any strength, when overused, can become a liability. Describe a situation where this might have been true for Jason.
  5. Tell me something you often had to remind Jason to do.

Digging Deeper When Checking References

phoneThe complete answer you’re trying to uncover through behavioral interview questions is always made up of the same three parts, whether you’re interviewing candidates or references. For our purposes in the example above, we were looking for the following:

  1. Problem: This answers the question, “What problem Jason was trying to solve?”
  2. Action: This is a description of the actions that Jason took to address the problem he was facing.
  3. Result: Here, the goal is to uncover any results Jason achieved through his actions.

I call this the PAR (problem, action, result) technique. To “get PAR,” you’re listening for each one of the three and mentally checking them off as the person gives them to you. If the person skips any one of the three, ask them about it. Be persistent. Don’t stop until you get the problem, action, and result.

What I Learned From Jason’s Supervisor

While answering my questions, Jason’s former supervisor told me stories about Jason’s creativity and cleverness in gathering resources. This was in a situation where he had the drive and the passion, but not the budget. He also explained that Jason was a good builder of teams and very skilled at selecting people. Further, I was able to learn that Jason works extremely hard when he is connected to and strongly believes in the mission of the organization.

Jason’s supervisor also made clear to me that my challenge would be ensuring that Jason maintain a healthy work-life balance — that he leave work at a reasonable hour and is not on email all night long to the detriment of his personal relationships.

I also learned that Jason’s initiative can be annoying if left unchecked. He can find himself lost in the weeds because he has not stopped and asked for others’ opinions or feedback.

As a result of using behavioral questions during this reference call, I was able to get useful information that could help me a lot in managing Jason more effectively. Compare that to the generic praise you usually receive on a reference call, and you’ll see why behavioral interview questions are the way to go — whether you’re interviewing a candidate or trying to get some good information out of their references.

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