Creative Reference Checks Yield Complete Candidate Picture

Depending on their role, employees can serve as a company’s primary interface with important clients, and often conduct activities that impact bottom line profitability. Employees can potentially perform delicate duties, manage valuable assets, and have access to sensitive information.  It is therefore imperative that employers build a comprehensive picture of candidates they are considering to fill vacancies. Unfortunately, in today’s politically correct world, few employers are willing to give a full honest appraisal of a former employee. So is there any point in calling an applicant’s former employers, supervisors, or co-workers? After all, what kind of numskull would include as a reference for someone whose evaluation of them is anything less than stellar?

In order to see a true picture of a potential hires character and prior work experience, it is essential to differentiate between two very different references.

  • Self-reported references are those references that a candidate supplies himself. When filling out a job application, it is typical for a company to ask a candidate to provide a minimum of 3 professional references. Ideally, a minimum of 1 will be a former supervisor, 1 will be a customer, and 1 can be a co-worker. All viable candidates should be able to provide this information. Since these are self-reported, it should be assumed that these 3 people that your application is choosing to speak with you should sing his praises more enthusiastically about your candidate than anyone else out there.
  • The second type of references should carry much more weight. These are references that the hiring manager can reach out to directly.


In order to honour an applicants confidentiality,  it would be highly unethical to reach out to a current supervisor without their permission.

However, it is absolutely appropriate when vetting a prospective job-seeker to identify former supervisors and to reach out to them.  LinkedIn offers a terrific way to look at someone’s work history, and then by doing a little research, you can easily reach out to former supervisors to get a little background on your applicant.

Here’s how to evaluate references and gather valuable information from even the most resistant or trite among them:

  • Focus your energy on identifying former supervisors. Submitting an ex-coworker at a company rather than the boss may indicate problems


  • Keep in mind that while federal laws prohibit companies from giving anything other than basic information, there are no laws in place that prohibit a former supervisor from writing a glowing letter of recommendation if he or she chooses to do so. These letters of reference can be very telling and should be weighted accordingly.

  • When identifying former employers whom the candidate did not list as references give some thought as to WHY were they omitted?
  • Ask what management style the references found most effective with the potential employees. The answer will give insight into how well candidates work independently, if they are effective team leaders, and if they know when to seek guidance from superiors.
  • Listen for non-verbal cues. Delaying in answering questions may indicate a reference’s attempt to sugar-coat or dissemble his or her opinion. Do you detect a change in voice pitch or tone? How about sarcasm – “She was such a team player”?A word of caution here, be sure not to read into something that may not be there.
  • Perhaps even more important than the skills and experience that candidates bring to the position is their trustworthiness, work ethic, affability, job history and strength of character. With a little guile and creativity, reference checks can ferret out valuable information about potential hires before it’s too late.


Ann Zaslow- Rethaber is President of International Search Consultants, a leader in Executive Search since 1999. Please reach out to ISC for any recruitment needs in the following 5 areas of focus: Sales, Financial Services, Healthcare (non-clinical), Human Resources, & Construction  Leadership Recruiting.

You can reach the author directly at or via phone at 888-866-7276

Kim Garrison is Team Lead for ISC’s Texas Banking Recruiting Team and can be reached via e-mail at or direct dial at 800-270-3974.