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5 Steps for Conducting a Reference Call

While some recruiters and hiring managers skip the referencing phase altogether (or do it merely to check a box), reference calls can provide valuable intelligence. In addition to giving you more or less confidence that a candidate is the right person for a job, reference calls can also provide excellent insights on how to help someone be even more successful after he is hired. Follow these five steps, and you will get more value from your reference calls:

Step 1: Set the stage for the call.

A reference might be nervous about speaking with you, given that his feedback can impact a candidate’s consideration for a role. As a result, it’s important to help the reference relax. After introducing yourself, set the stage for the conversation.

  • Example: “As you may know, Jim is a finalist for a Vice President position. We are conducting some reference calls to learn more about his greatest strengths, his style, the types of environments he thrives in, and so on. None of the feedback that we gather from these calls will be attributed to you personally, so you can feel comfortable speaking freely about Jim. This call will only take 15-20 minutes.”

Step 2: Ask a few ice-breaker questions.

After you have set the stage for the call, you want to ease into the conversation with a few ice-breaker questions. These are intended to build some more rapport and to continue the process of helping the reference feel comfortable. Here are a few sample questions that you can ask:

  • “How long have you known Jim and under what circumstances?”
  • “How would you describe Jim?”
  • “What would you say are Jim’s greatest strengths?”
  • “How would you characterize Jim’s style?”
  • “What type of work environment do you think that Jim is best suited for?”

Step 3: Probe for insights on the key criteria for the role.

After learning more about the candidate in general, you want to probe further about the top 2-3 assessment criteria for your role. Here is a sample question that you can ask for each of these key competencies:

  • “One of the key competencies required for this role is _____. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate Jim in this area, and why?”

Step 4: Ask carefully about potential areas for improvement.

In addition to learning about the candidate’s strengths and how he measures up on the top competencies for the role, you also want to ask about the candidate’s blind spots or areas for development. Rather than asking about “weaknesses” (which the reference might be hesitant to share), ask for advice on how the candidate could be “even more successful” in the future.

  • Example: “If you were to give Jim’s next supervisor advice on how to help him be even more successful in the future, what would you say?”

Step 5: Wrap-up the call.

After you have asked your main questions, wrap up the call and thank the reference for his time. Reiterate that none of his feedback will be attributed to him personally. You can also ask the following two questions:

  • “How would you feel about working with Jim again?”
  • “Is there anything else that you would like to share?”

P.S. Looking for more help with your company’s executive recruiting efforts?

Download my free eBook below, or contact me directly to schedule a call.

About the author: As the Founder of Stronger Talent, Pete Leibman recruits exceptional leaders for innovative sports, fitness, and wellness companies. Throughout his career, Pete has helped clients recruit exceptional leaders at the Board, C-Suite, Senior Vice President, Vice President, General Manager, Managing Director, and Director levels. Pete’s work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and, and he is the author of two books and over 250 articles on career management, peak performance, and executive recruiting.

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