From a search committee: What are good reference call strategies?
There is an old adage that says the assets of an organization go up and down in the elevator every day. Hiring right is a sine qua non for organizational health, and good reference checking is essential to make a good hire.
Begin with a set of 10-12 well-crafted reference call questions which might consume 30-40 minutes in a typical reference call. Among the issues a reference caller should explore: the nature and length of the relationship with the candidate, job performance and accountability, personal qualities such as approachability, initiative, genuineness, ease of interaction with colleagues, leadership style, and communication skills. Lastly, a reference caller should ask, "as we conduct our due diligence on this and all candidates, to your knowledge are there any 'red flags' real or alleged, that we might encounter."
Some reference check guidelines:
Always consider the circumstances: Generally, negative feedback means you drop the candidate immediately. Likewise, a clear endorsement means you mentally advance the candidate. Negative feedback, however, may require deeper digging to discover underlying circumstances.
Don't assume people never change: Reference checks with the most recent employer usually provide the best assessment of a candidate's performance, work habits, and behavior giving the most objective feedback. Likewise, a negative report from a reference familiar with candidate behavior ten years ago doesn't mean the candidate today continues to lead/act in the same way. Make certain perceived weaknesses are confirmed by multiple sources.
Reference checking no-no's: Reference checking, like employment, cannot be discriminatory. You cannot ask about age, martial/family status, ethnicity, sexuality, or anything else that does not relate to a person's ability to perform the duties related to the position.
Reference checking with consent: If a candidate specifically states that only references he or she has provided may be called, further and deeper exploration regarding the candidate's motivation is in order (e.g. a sitting president may request greater reference checking discretion). Once reference checking is authorized, the candidate must understand that others are fair game for a contact.