The final steps in hiring: how to ask the right questions to references



In the past two issues, we’ve talked with our favourite executive recruiter, Wolf Gugler. This month, he provides some concrete tips on how to approach, and what to ask, the references on your potential new hire’s resumé.

As the lead at Wolf Gugler Executive Search, Gugler has had plenty of experience tracking down—and sizing up—candidates of all stripes for companies in the hardware industry. First off, he warns his clients against asking for references up front. He recommends leaving reference checks for much later in the process, when you’re about to make your final decisions.

When Gugler calls a reference, first he makes sure they have time for the call to give them time to gather their thoughts and ensure they are engaged in the conversation. Then he gives the reference a description of the opportunity and some of the key requisites the new employer expects from that individual, besides what the new role is and what skills are required. The reference can then answer in a more informed way, and potentially provide additional insights into the candidate’s suitability for the role in question. This helps make the interview more “open and freewheeling”—and not so structured.

This approach is better than just asking the reference to verify the candidate’s job history. As far as their resumé goes, Gugler says you can hire a third party to verify their background, “or just go on LinkedIn and see if it matches up with their resumé. It’s amazing just how many times that doesn’t match up, either.”

In terms of the interview process with the individual giving the reference, don’t be afraid to ask some soft questions that reflect the candidate’s personal life. Ask them about other stuff outside of work, such as charities or hobbies. “What kind of a person are they? What kind of things do they do outside of work? Do you know if they’re involved in any charitable activities or involved in their community, that kind of thing.”

He recommends asking the reference if they can think of anyone else the candidate knows and has worked with whom you could speak with. This gives you the chance to connect with someone who the candidate may not expect you to talk with.

“One of my last questions usually is, would you work with this person again? Would you hire them if the appropriate opportunity came up.” Then wait for the pause, Gugler advises. “That pregnant pause can tell you a lot.” It’s important to read between the lines.

That last response is best interpreted with gut instinct, something Gugler says he’s honed through years of experience (and just one more reason why a pro like Wolf is a good choice when making a hire—your unbiased Editor!).