IR Search Anton van Rossum

Anton van Rossum 

21 September 2021

I.M. asks:

We’re in advanced talks with a candidate for an executive role within our company. We’ve had a series of discussions with him and are now contemplating what further assurances we can get that he’s indeed the right man for the job. A colleague suggested a psychological test, but a team majority rejected this idea. They believe that it’s more useful to check references before making an offer.

To me, asking for references feels a bit weird. It makes it seem as if we don’t dare to rely on our own judgment. Also, several team members have known him for quite some time and even have common contacts. According to some, we’d only get a collection of BFFs giving very positive references. There’s also a discussion about which questions to ask.

How do we go from here? Should we contact past managers for assessments or inquire with them as to the candidate’s suitability for the intended position? How do we even know if they’re able to judge this?

The headhunter answers:

Asking for references is a standard part of application procedures, albeit not always popular. Contacting the right people is paramount. Start with (former) managers. For a number of specialist technical positions within a company, others with exceptional technical skills might also serve as references. For this executive role, however, they should be at least of C-level themselves.

You mustn’t let the candidate being acquainted with some of your team members stand in your way. References can confirm your opinion about him, but they can also add something you don’t immediately get from the outside appearance and/or in interviews. I’ve witnessed this several times before.

The way a candidate responds to a reference request can be quite telling as well. If the response is evasive or difficult, alarm bells should go off. References don’t necessarily have to be given orally; they can also be given in writing.

Key to getting useful results are the questions you ask. Discretion is also essential: negative feedback can forever disrupt the relationship between candidate and reference. The opening questions should be fact checking: the position and department he worked in, his period of appointment, his main responsibilities and how close the working relationship was.

Next, you should inquire about the candidate’s main accomplishments and greatest strengths, but also about his biggest weakness – where would he need to receive extra support during the first hundred days of employment? How would he perform in an executive role with a number of specifically defined targets? Ask to rate a number of competencies on a scale of 1 to 10. Also, how does he function in a team? Is he able to connect and lead?

A successful candidate needs to be able to multi-task and meet deadlines. Ask references to give an example of a setback or stressful challenge and how he handled it. A management role is never a string of simple victories. Will he hold up or will he collapse in the face of adversity?

Finally, ask references why the candidate left their company. Would they consider rehiring him? Would they hire him for this particular executive role and why – or why not?