Depending on your point of view, reference checking is either a perfunctory hiring exercise that anybody can do or it's an art that requires training, skill and an inquisitive mind. If you see it as the former, you might as well stop reading now. On the other hand, if you recognize that careful reference checking can bring significant value to your hiring practices, please continue.
The first step is building rapport with the reference. It is critical the interview be conducted as a conversation. If it sounds like you're reading from a script, you'll probably get short, cryptic, one or two-word answers to every question you ask. We've all heard telemarketers who gave the impression that they'd have to start from the beginning again if you interrupted their canned speech. That's not how you dig beneath the surface of any response to a question. It's perfectly fine to have a list of questions handy for reference, but they should be so internalized that asking them is second nature.
Explore Strengths and Weaknesses
During your team's post-game review, suppose you ask the question, "So, how would you rate the quality of the candidate's overall job performance?" and the response is, "Oh, he was the best employee we had in that department." To get below that glittering generality, you need to be skilled enough in the art of reference checking to respond with something like, "You know, that's really good to hear. Could you give me some examples of how the candidate's work was so exceptional?" The answer to that follow-up question will either validate the response or demonstrate that it was just flummery. If the reference can cite several examples of extraordinary performance, then you could accept the previous response as genuine.
On the other hand, if the reference can't think of anything the candidate did to justify the praise, you might begin to wonder how good the performance really was.
Another way to get at the same topic from a different direction would be to ask the reference to compare the candidate's overall performance to others doing the same job with whom the reference has worked. Was his performance better than most, or not as good compared to others?
Open the Door to Information
Yet another way to get beneath the surface would be to ask what the candidate needs to continue his professional development or career growth. The response to that type of question should provide insight not only to areas of possible weakness, but also areas that genuinely may need improvement. If all of the references point to the same developmental needs, then you can be fairly confident the insight is valid.
Suppose, for example, you need to hire a hands-on manager, someone who can pull a group of employees together into a team. How would you ask a reference about that? Would you say, "Is the candidate a hands-on manager?" Not necessarily. The way to ask the question is, "How would you describe the candidate's management style?" That way, the reference cannot possibly guess what type of style the position requires, and if every reference says the same thing, it's safe to assume that really is the approach the candidate takes to the management of the time and activities of others.
Still another technique is to listen to the way in which references respond to your questions. Listen for tone of voice, inflection and hesitations. A hesitant response might cause you to follow with: "You seemed to hesitate there for a second. Are there some issues I should know about?"
Getting below the surface is essential if reference checking is going to help you make the most informed employment decision possible. Doing so will help to add value to your hiring practices and make the most of your reference checking.