At a glance
Employers traditionally seek top-down references during the recruitment process to help determine whether a candidate has the right skills and credentials for a particular role.
It also makes good business sense to speak with someone who has directly reported to the candidate when filling a management position, says Geoff Balmer, founding director of Richard Lloyd Accounting Recruitment in Sydney.
This “bottom-up” approach may offer insight into how well a candidate could manage a team.
“Some people can make themselves sound pretty amazing in an interview,” says Balmer.
“What you need is the full 360-degree view of a person. Getting a junior reference is a valid part of doing your due diligence.”
Balmer finds it useful to ask a junior referee how responsive their team was to the candidate’s management approach and what they learned from them as a leader or mentor.
“You could ask them to describe the candidate’s coaching skills, or how they cultivated cohesion among a hybrid team.
“Another great question is whether the person looks up to them as someone they would like to be,” he says.
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The top-down approach
Darren Banfield, managing director of Melbourne-based recruitment firm Lawson Delaney, says he would be hesitant to contact someone more junior for a reference.
“We like to get a reference check from someone who is working at a more senior or similar level. We haven’t ventured into the realms of speaking to a junior reporting up to that person. I’m not sure whether I would feel comfortable doing that,” he says.
For Banfield, it would be a red flag if a candidate was able to provide a peer reference but not a reference from a more senior colleague or supervisor. Only extraneous circumstances could justify this, such as an accountant who has only ever worked at their current firm.
“The advantage of speaking to someone more senior is that they have acquired a degree of professional maturity that enables them to identify where someone’s at in their journey.
“They can tell you how you can best support them on that journey, as well as the things that they really excel at, and where they would encourage you to provide extra training,” Banfield explains.
A question of context
Obtaining reference checks is an incredibly important part of the recruitment process, but there can be complicating factors associated with senior referees, too, says Banfield.
“We find that, if a CPA has been working in a sole practitioner’s business for 5-10 years and they leave, the partner may feel a bit disappointed by the fact that they’re leaving,” he says.
“For that reason, they don’t want to be forthcoming. It is important to remove the emotion when speaking to a referee and to have a practical conversation.”
His advice is to focus on details – enquire about charge-out rates, utilisation and broader business details. If the candidate is working as a lead, ask about their work capacity and the write-offs that they are experiencing individually and as a team.
“We bring as much technical conversation to the table as we can. That puts the referee in a comfortable spot. They’re talking to what they know,” says Banfield.
From there, broach the bigger questions around why the person is leaving. For instance, does the referee understand the reasons for the candidate’s departure, even if they feel disappointed after investing in their training and development?
“This could be inflammatory, so it’s important to interpret their intent without getting caught up in any unconscious bias that might exist in that relationship,” says Banfield.
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One of the things Balmer pays particular attention to is the length of a referee’s replies. Short answers may present a red flag, because they may suggest a reluctance to say something positive. Sometimes though, it is simply due to having a less extroverted personality.
“We will often probe the referee a bit further,” explains Balmer. “If they tell me that the candidate is ‘great’, I will ask them to explain why they think that. If they say that a candidate has weak communication skills, for example, I will ask whether their skills improved or got worse.”
Balmer’s goal is to find out whether his impression of the candidate matches what the referee says about them. “Inconsistency in a candidate can be disastrous.”
Why referees matter
A person can have an impressive LinkedIn profile, but a reference remains an invaluable tool for finding out a person’s true character, adds Balmer.
Referees are also helpful for determining whether a candidate is likely to be a good fit culturally. In management positions, this can be more important than experience and technical skills.
“I believe that you can’t train someone to become the right cultural fit for an organisation,” says Banfield. “Values and behaviours need to align, and for me, the cultural part is paramount.
You can train the technical side of things, providing someone’s got the right mindset to learn and develop.”