Hiring a new staff member for your nonprofit is a huge responsibility and investment in time and resources and ultimately could have a major impact on your organization’s future success. Resumes, cover letters, applications, interviews and LinkedIn profiles will only get you so far in knowing a candidate. Being able to uncover what you can’t see isn’t always easy. So, when done right, reference checks can be the difference between making a great hire or making a wrong one.

From the dozens of placements we have facilitated on behalf of our clients, here are some critical “DOs” and “DON’Ts” that can help you when incorporating reference checks in your hiring process.

DO – 

  • Decide when to conduct reference checks. Many organizations wait until after an official offer has been made, but recently TSG has begun conducting reference checks before the second interview for the final two candidates. While it takes longer to conduct references for two candidates, we have found this information to be useful in informing the final decision process.
  • Ask for at least 3-4 “recent and relevant” reference contacts. TSG likes to have one recent person a candidate has supervised, one recent person the candidate has been supervised by, and then one to two others who the candidate has worked closely with in the last five years. You should not accept personal references or references that date back prior to 10 years.
  • Ask the candidate to provide names, emails, and context for each candidate. TSG does not make cold calls to references. No one likes to be called out of the blue and put on the spot. Setting up a call via email gives a reference contact time to organize his/her thoughts and be prepared for the 15–20-minute conversation.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Your goal during the reference check is to get as much information as possible about the candidate. Asking, “Did Tom contribute to projects during his time with you?” will elicit a yes/no answer. But asking, “Tell me about a time when Tom contributed to a specific project where he demonstrated his ability to multitask and use his project management skills?” will likely reveal a lot more about the candidate.
  • Look for answers that are vague or neutral rather than positive. Sometimes what is not being said is as interesting as what is being said. Make a note of this, and look to other references for more information.
  • Remember to keep things in perspective. No one will give you the name of a person who won’t give you a fairly good reference, after all, the person is aiming to get the job! So, use your judgment and try not to take everything you hear as absolute fact.
  • Do take notes. Lastly, it is important to take good notes when you are conducting a reference check. TSG transcribes all references into a document marked confidential and shares it with the client prior to the second interview. This allows you to have a written record for each candidate.

DON’T – 

  • Change the questions based on the candidate. TSG likes to use the same questions for all candidates. A good practice is to come up with an outline consisting of a list of questions and use it for every candidate. This will allow you easily and fairly compare all candidates against one another,
  • Lead the person to say what you want to hear. If you have made up your mind on what candidate you want, it is sometimes easy to ask questions in a leading way. You don’t want to say, “Is it fair to say that Jane was a go-getter in the time she was with you?” That is why TSG likes asking the same questions for both candidates earlier in the process.
  • Step over the legal line. You should NEVER be asking for information that could be used to discriminate. You cannot ask questions like, “Has the candidate ever been arrested?” “Is the candidate married?” “Does the candidate plan on having children?” “How old is the candidate?” and “When did the candidate graduate from college?”

As we’ve learned, thoughtfully incorporating reference checks into your hiring process is well worth the effort. If TSG can be of help with reference checks or an executive search, please reach out to us for more information at info@thestrategygroupllc.org. We’d love to talk to you about our process!