Before calling references, ask the applicant, “What am I likely to hear when I contact these people?” The answers may surprise you.
By encouraging job candidates to predict what their references will say about them, you get a window into their self-perception. That alone can help you evaluate whether they’ll make a good fit in your organization.
Example: If an applicant insists that all his references will give glowing reviews—and spends 10 minutes regaling you with his triumphs—you’ll know you’ve got a braggart on your hands.
This approach pays off in other ways. If references feed you the company line (“Company policy forbids me to give you any information except …”), you can thank them, hang up, call them back during off hours and leave the following voice mail: “Bill’s applying for a job here, and he told me you would rate him an A+ superstar. If that’s true, please call me back.”
Here are other ways to gain insights about applicants without relying on closed-mouth references:
Listen for adjectives. When you ask candidates to describe those giving the references, note how they characterize their former colleagues.
With a bit of gentle prodding from you, they may judge their past co-workers harshly with words such as “unfair” or “weak” rather than describing specific behaviors and letting you draw your own conclusions. Beware of candidates who complain.
Compare references. Have the candidate imagine what some former bosses would say about his performance. It’s revealing to see how individuals think they were perceived.
Example: An interviewee tells you, “I got along a lot better with my last boss than the one before.” Follow up and ask, “How would their references vary?”