5 Tips to Make Reference Calls Valuable in the Hiring Process

Written by
Lucas Price
June 25, 2023
4 min

How do you feel about reference calls?

Are they a critical step in your hiring process? One that helps you understand the full picture of how a sales candidate’s experience lines up with their interview and really hone in on who you need to hire for your role?

Or something that doesn’t add value to your hiring process? Perhaps something that may no longer apply when you have such a rigorous interview process? And how do reference calls really impact how someone is going to sell your product?

While feelings toward reference calls may be on a spectrum for any given hiring manager, as many as 87% of companies report still using them as part of a pre-screening process—along with background checks—before hiring a candidate.  

When done right, they can be a great addition to a fully realized hiring process that helps you find, interview thoroughly, and hire top sales talent for your role. Companies who are getting smarter about the reference call process know that it’s a great way to evaluate candidates and build trust in the hiring decisions you’re making for your sales organization.

So it’s important to get them right when you do use them.

How to Leverage Reference Calls Effectively for Informed Hiring Decisions

Here are 5 tips to make reference calls a valuable tool in your hiring process.  

  1. Use reference calls as a tool near the end of the hiring process. Typically, reference calls serve as the final step before extending a job offer to a candidate. This is a practical place to use them because the scheduling complexity and time-intensive nature of reference calls mean it makes sense to do it only when you’re considering the highest potential candidates. Coordinate with the references and candidates and ensure everyone's time is respected. These reference calls provide an opportunity for employers to gather additional information about the candidate's skills, work ethic, and overall fit within the organization.
  2. Avoid confirmation bias. You have gone through a lot to get to this point. You’ve probably got dozens of interviews under your belt, and you’ve narrowed the process down to some good candidates. Don’t let reference calls become just a box you have to check. Often, they can be passed off to the talent acquisition team, who are eager to fill the position promptly and efficiently. That’s great, but it can lead to inefficient reference call processes that won’t add value to your hiring strategy. It’s tempting, at this point in the process, to use the reference call to look for evidence that supports your decision to hire a particular candidate. This bias arises because hiring managers want reassurance that they made the right choice rather than actively seeking evidence that might challenge their decision. It can be very disappointing to get to nearly the end of the interview process and find out it’s not going to work with a candidate. But it’s better to find out now rather than three months into the job.  Instead, to combat confirmation bias during reference calls, it is crucial to adopt a mindset of disproving conclusions rather than proving them. Instead of seeking validation for your initial assessment of the candidate, approach the reference call with an open mind, actively searching for any potential concerns or areas for improvement.
  3. Don’t cut corners. Entry-level positions in sales organizations hold significance and should not be underestimated, so avoid shortcuts and invest the necessary time and effort in hiring for these roles. Including doing reference calls. Your entry-level hires serve as the foundation for future promotions and leadership roles within your sales team.While references from entry-level candidates may not provide much in the way of additional insight into how the candidate will perform in day-to-day tasks, they will help you distinguish the right candidates. Choosing a candidate who is even just 10% better than another will have significant long-term impacts. They will ramp up quickly, learn from customers, and discover innovative approaches that benefit the entire team. Over time, these incremental improvements accumulate into substantial gains. While references may not speak directly about sales skills, they can provide insights into crucial sales competencies like curiosity, grit, and coachability.
  4. Ask the candidate for specific references. While candidates typically provide references, it is essential not to solely rely on them. By listening for and noting additional individuals mentioned during the interview process, such as former colleagues and managers, you can gain a more comprehensive perspective on the candidate's abilities and work style. Then ask the candidate to provide introductions for reference calls. This approach helps minimize the potential bias in the narrative that might arise from relying solely on the references provided by the candidate.
  5. Get candid feedback. Some references may be reluctant to give candid feedback about the candidate. But there are ways you can coax good and useful information from the reference, and it starts with asking good questions. One successful tactic is using things the candidate said to make the reference more comfortable.

Here’s an example of how you could keep a conversation with a former manager going to get candid feedback:

  • Q. What things did you want to see [the candidate] improve?
  • A. Well, I can’t think of anything right now. She was strong at everything that was important to the job.
  • Q. She said she had an issue with internal relationships with certain people because she was too hard driving and didn’t invest enough in those relationships. Did you notice that?

Embracing reference calls as a vital tool in the hiring process will ultimately lead to stronger teams and increased organizational success. They can help make your hiring strategy one that allows you to build trust and understand working relationships with candidates before they even start at your company.

When used correctly, they add valuable insights into a candidate's suitability for a position.

Don’t waste the time and effort your company is putting into organizing reference calls without setting them into a robust and organized hiring process support system. Pairing reference calls with strategically organized structured interviews, candidate scorecards, and hiring playbooks will ensure you’re finding the top talent for your company.

Spot A-players early by building a systematic interview process today.

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