Before calling references, ask the applicant, “What am I likely to hear when I contact these people?” The answers may surprise you.
Urging job candidates to predict what their references will say gives you a window into their self-perception. That alone can help you evaluate whether they’ll make a good fit.
Then follow up with reference-checks. If references feed you the company line (“Policy forbids me to give you any information except …”), thank them and hang up. Then call back during off hours and leave a voicemail: “Bill’s applying for a job here, and he told me you would rate him a superstar. If that’s true, please call me back.”
Other ways to gain insights without relying on reluctant references:
Listen for adjectives. When you ask candidates to describe those giving the references, note how they characterize their former colleagues.
They may judge past co-workers harshly with words such as “unfair” or “weak” rather than describing specific behaviors and letting you draw your own conclusions.
Beware candidates who complain like that.
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?”