by Ed Fry

Reference checking is a critical component of most search processes. It is often one of the final steps taken before a candidate is selected for a position and as such, there is a tendency to treat this function as a formality. Through years of experience and quite a bit of practice, I have learned this is a mistake.

As executives, we must be discerning as we navigate through all areas of life. As such, a high level of wisdom should be exercised throughout the entire search process, and referencing is no exception.

While reference-checking is the primary responsibility of the search consultant, this does not relieve the hiring executive from his own due diligence in researching a candidate’s unique background.

Be prudent as you conduct conversational references or review written references—all too often ambiguous phrases that are meant to be favorable are perceived otherwise. Conversely, there are occasions when ambiguity is used to feign praise or even be indirectly critical. Consider these examples:

  • “I’ve never worked with a person as good as John.”
  • “Mary is a very interesting leader.”
  • “I can’t say enough good things about Mark.”
  • “If I had the right role, I’d definitely hire Lisa again.”
  • “I can’t think of anything critical to say about Howard.”
  • “Doris was one of the better executives with whom I worked at ABC Health System.”

These types of phrases should be yellow flags for astute reference-takers, who should then probe further to determine whether the reference is praising or has concerns about the candidate. Do not be afraid to dig a little deeper, ask questions, and speak candidly with references. Failure to clearly interpret references may result in an unfavorable appointment. Responsible leaders understand that the ability to differentiate between a positive and negative reference is key to selecting the right candidate.

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