reference seeking

Why reference seeking is a key skill

Resume / CV fraud has always been around, but the case of Scott Thompson, named Yahoo’s chief executive in January 2012, illustrates how easy it is for even senior appointments to slip through the net without thorough due diligence and reference seeking. By May of the same year he was history.

Everyone assumes that the previous company has done the necessary work especially when the candidate has a strong market reputation. The former president of PayPal graduated from Stonehill College in Massachusetts with a degree in accounting, but his claim to a degree in computer science  turned out to be factually inaccurate.

Critical skill

Reference seeking is a valuable tool in the executive search box and a real skill, one that is under rated and sadly too frequently inadequately utilised. It is  more critical than ever to the hiring process, not simply to weed out blatant lies. Today, job seekers are becoming more sophisticated, especially at a senior level. Top level candidates are now encouraged to orientate their CVs towards each specific opening, sometimes employing skilled resume writers to perfect them to showcase their talents and career histories. A polished, perhaps even coached interview performance will seal the deal.

What it is not!

Reference seeking is not a chat or quick call with a nominated person or business associate from the candidate’s previous career, or a substitute for other forms of rigorous assessment. Nor should it be based on idle network gossip. If there is smoke then the fire should be systematically tracked down! Very often market whispering can provide valuable feedback if processed correctly.


Many companies will no longer give written references for fear of litigation and will only state any facts such as the candidate’s dates of employment and job title. Obviously the candidate should be informed that contact will be made which is now generally by telephone.  Preparation for the call should be as strategic as the job interview itself. It is important that the reference seeker understands the key requirements and qualities needed for the position.

Referees  are usually proposed by the candidate so he/she obviously expects to be spoken about in glowing terms. Quite often they will also have been specifically briefed. It’s therefore necessary to get behind the story with prepared questions relating to the open position and the skills and qualities required that are as penetrating as the candidate job interview.  Each interview usually takes about an hour.  It is probably a good idea to seek referees in possibly 3 previous companies, dependent on the experience level of the candidate. One excellent reference from the last employer could simply mean they want to get rid of a troublesome employee!

Part of onboarding

References can also be helpful in the onboarding process. If a candidate comes with outstanding references from a number of sources and suddenly under performs in the new role, then that might suggest that some internal questions need to be asked about cultural fit, onboarding programmes etc. facilitating early intervention.

And finally, before the start date, copies of any academic or professional certificates should be supplied. That one simple step would have helped Yahoo save face, not to mention a  lot of money.

If you need to train your recruitment team on reference seeking – get in touch NOW!  

2 thoughts on “Why reference seeking is a key skill

  1. Wendy Mason

    Great advice – thanks Dorothy – I think the giving and checking of references has always been a challenge and likely to become more so in the future. I come from a culture where giving an honest reference was a matter of honour. But sadly now that concept seems almost medieval. Now, for many it seems to be about what you can get away with. Isn’t that sad? It all makes competent competence-based interviewing even more important.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Wendy – obtaining genuine references in today’s cautious climate is a real skill and an invaluable part of the hiring process. Sadly it’s overlooked by many organisations often times with problems further down the line.


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