Tips and pointers on executive level reference checking

Nov 11, 2015


In one of our earlier posts we couldn’t stress enough how skipping doing a thorough reference check is a mistake that no hiring manager wants to make. In this week’s blog, we expand further on this point, and reference checking for the executive level using 360 feedback and other tactics.

According to Yu (2013) managers should base 80% of their hiring decisions for executives on thorough reference checking. From his CEO experience with Betfair he shares that the leading cause of executive hiring mistakes can be traced to waiting to make reference checks until the final step in the hiring process. Resumes and interviews are all sales pitches…a cleverly crafted executive resume omits or minimises negative experiences and cherry-picks the most compelling successes; it blurs a candidate’s role or responsibilities to make it tough evaluate true contributions to an initiative, campaign or idea (Yu, 2013).


This week’s managers tips to checking executive level references:

Conduct a thorough, 360-degree review

In other words, find out what everyone is saying about the candidate. “It’s not just about checking references, it’s about listening – and more importantly hearing – what executives’ references say about them” (Chavaz, 2014). You can also observe your candidate’s behaviour on social media and in the blogosphere. Look for reviews in unconventional places, and listen to stories. And sometimes, you have to read in-between-the-lines. Does the previous work history and references clearly show an executive who is relatable, hardworking, and whose staff/references feel comfortable when speaking about this executive?

Align the Job Description to your References Questions

When preparing for reference checks, review the profile to highlight specific characteristics and challenges that the executive will need to embody or will face on the job. Before beginning the calls, formulate four or five subheadings based on the job specifications and be clear about what you need to learn from each reference based on his or her unique understanding of the candidate (Centrestone Executive Research, 2013).

Negative References

If you receive a negative reference (especially if the feedback given by others about the potential employee has been positive) consult additional references or recheck previous ones before ruling out the candidate. Before ending the call, ask, “Would you rehire this employee?” Listen closely for the answer in both words and tone (FEI, 2014).

Ask the Right Questions

If during your interview you asked the candidate questions around communication, decision-making and time management, you should then ask the referee (ideally the candidate’s former boss) exactly the same questions (Slezak, 2014). “When did he/she ever have to ‘sell’ an idea to a co-worker? How did they do it?” “Can you give me an example of a time when they had to be quick in coming to a decision. What obstacles did they face? What did they do?” The questions you ask should prompt the candidate’s former supervisor/manager to talk about the candidate’s actual past experiences and behaviour – ideally in more than just a 2-minute quick call. The responses to these questions will certainly tell you more than whether your candidate was nice to work with, was usually punctual, had minimal sick days or whether they were proficient in a certain skill. Think of the questions as those re-phrased from those you asked a candidate – this is so you can double check statements made.

Beware of fake referees

You wouldn’t believe how many ‘professional’ candidates out there will provide fake referees (Slezak, 2014). Make sure you’re really talking to a previous employer/a real reference. If a candidate gives you the details of someone, check them out on LinkedIn, and ideally call them on a land line at the organisation. Better still, after you’ve spoken to them, connect with them on LinkedIn and thank them for taking the time to speak to you. You’ll quickly find out if you actually spoke with an ‘imposter’.


Over to you, what do you think about Executive reference checking? Do you have any tips for checking your executive candidate’s references?



By: Curran Daly + Associates


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