Reference checking can be one of the best tools in the hiring process. It’s incredibly rare to actually have an applicant provide a reference that won’t say positive things about them. So a cursory reference check that asks “high level” questions may not provide a lot of meaningful information.
According to Dr. Bradford Smart in TOPGRADING, reference checks are most effective when carried out by the hiring team, using in-depth behavioral questions, similar or identical to the questions being used to screen candidates. Reference checks done by the recruiter can offer input on stability, knowledge, how they are as part of a team, how they rank as a manager, or similar cursory topics. But reference checks done by the hiring manager, or company executive can incorporate powerful knowledge and follow-up questions that only be used from being an insider in the organization. For example. If a company executive is doing a reference check for Candidate A (a process engineer), he can ask “please describe a process problem that Candidate A solved and the methods he used to solve it.”. He can then follow up with something like “did she use a scientific approach such as DOE or trial and error?” Another follow up “Did you or your company train her on DOE?”. Follow up: “Please describe any 6-sigma events or methodologies that Candidate A was involved with.” Follow up: “what was her role?” Follow up: “Oh, she led the event. Who was on the team and how did they respond to her leadership?”
Follow up: “What results did that event achieve?” Follow up: “What changes were made in the operation that were noteworthy?” As you can see from the executive’s questioning, having an in-depth understanding of their business and knowing the goals and future direction of the business, this executive was able to ask a lot of follow up questions relating to actual specific, detailed performance that a recruiter might not understand to ask. Reference checks can be a very valuable tool if done correctly.