Who What Where When Why and How — Obtaining and Evaluating References of Your Candidates

WWWWW&H — I think we all learned this in 2nd grade… 

So many of those early lessons are ones that we can use throughout our lives. 

WWWWW&H is applied throughout the recruiting process.  We apply it when we initially interview candidates and evaluate their fit for a position and company; and we apply it when we’re checking discrete references throughout the search (when possible, so as not to intrude upon a Candidate’s confidentiality); and when taking a deep dive into reference checking as we make or final candidate determinations.

Some suggestions for Companies (the Hiring Manager or BOD team):

I recommend contact with Peers, Direct Reports, Managers, Customers, BODs – everyone who would have a professional experience with the Candidate. 

Try to find “discrete references” (those not offered by the candidate), along with “direct references” (those that the Candidate will tee-up for you).  Some Companies totally dismiss direct references – I do not agree, because you can still get valuable information from this type of source.  You can also get discrete references from them! (“Who else would have a fair assessment of about Jan Smith’s performance? Management style? Customer Orientation? Ability to attract a great team?”)

Although tempting, try not to delegate the entire reference process – even to a trusted advisor like moi.  I always urge my Clients to make a few of the calls – so they can hear the reference directly AND ask spontaneous questions that pertain DIRECTLY to managing the Candidate.  Members of the Board should talk directly with a CEO candidate’s past Members of the Board, etc.

Be suspicious of 100% positive references.  I’ve had a number of situations like this, and I’ve had to actually tell the Reference Source that no one is perfect – I’ve had to shake some human moments out of them.  Some people think they’re being helpful by not revealing human moments.  Actually, it enhances the profile of a Candidate.  And I tell them that.

Be thoughtful about negative references.  Ask lots of questions about the circumstances.  Look for corroboration.  Ask to talk with someone who may have a different view of the situation.   

Evaluate the positives against the negatives.   Do the positives, good by definition, match your company culture, and the chemistry of the team?  Will they make a positive impact on company DNA?  Are the negatives manageable?  Are they mitigated by the positives?  Is it worth talking with the Candidate about the any negative references and allowing a rebuttal?  I have done this many times, often with good results.  Sometimes, negative references may be a misunderstanding of the circumstances.


Always consider your sources.  Through what type of lens do they view the Candidate?

And always protect the confidentiality of your sources.  A golden rule. 


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