In my 21 years as a Head of School search consultant with over 100 searches under my belt, I have done thousands of reference checks. Here is what I have learned:
Lies of commission are very rare in our world. Generally, folks don’t tell untruths. It’s not what they say that is the problem; it’s what they don’t say. Full disclosure: in my 20 years as a Head of School, I left out a few things in references that I probably should have said. It’s natural to want to help someone get their next job, especially if they have done a good job for you. If they haven’t done a good job, then it’s not ethical to pass your problems along to someone else. However, human nature being what it is, the natural impulse is to help that person you have just fired find another job. You’re feeling somewhat guilty, as though you want to help someone who is not in the best position imaginable.
But when you are hiring someone, especially in a key administrative role, your goal is to get the person on the other end of the line to tell you the WHOLE truth, not just the portion of the truth they think will be helpful to the subject at hand. How can you do that? Here are a few ways.
1. You must know ahead of time what it is you want to know. Before you make that call, list the attributes that are important to you. It should be a pretty long list, at least 40 items. If this is a key administrative position, then there ought to be a lot of items that deal with the quality of relationships. You have to prioritize this list and put the items that are most important for this job near the top so you do not make the mistake of thinking every item has equal weight. Do not leave out basic questions that more often are not asked, e.g. calendar management, timeliness of meetings, work habits, follow through, knowing people’s names (especially students’ names), control of temper, patience, and more. Keep this list in front of you when you make the call. Then add three columns next to each attribute with the titles: TRUE, MAYBE TRUE, and QUESTIONABLE.
2. Ask three or four very general questions of the person referring the candidate. Some examples: “What are the first words that come to mind when you think of him?” “What are the words that people use to describe her?” “What do you think are his strengths?” “What does her work demonstrate about her on a daily basis?” I think you can take the responses to those questions to be reliable and honest. This is where people tend to tell the truth, as they see it. Then look back at your attribute list and check off those areas that the person mentions in the first (TRUE) column.
3. Now look at what has NOT been mentioned and work your way down the list. Ask about every one of the attributes that the reference has NOT mentioned. Listen carefully to the answers because this is where you may be getting horn-swaggled. If the person hesitates, put a check in column 3 (QUESTIONABLE). You’ll come back to it. If they say, “Oh I forgot to mention his creativity! He’s very creative!” Then put a check in the second (MAYBE TRUE) column and ask for an example. If the person cannot think of one, move the check to the third (QUESTIONABLE) column.
4. Return to the top of your list and look at any checks in the third (QUESTIONABLE) column. You might say, “You seemed to hesitate when I asked you about his writing skills. Can you tell me why? Does he have an editor?” Or “You said she knows the names of most of the students. What percentage might that be? If I came to your school and asked the students if she knew them, what kinds of answers would I get?” And so on.
5. Assuming you are doing three or four reference checks, the first call sets you up for the next. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on the areas you’ve already confirmed as positives. Go to the areas you have questions about and drill down: “I’m wondering about his follow-through. Can you give me some examples of times when he has or has not implemented changes and initiatives?” Look for concrete answers. If the person is vague, they may be hiding something.
6. Beware, no BEWARE!!! of trying to validate your assumptions and biases. All of us have the tendency to have our opinions upheld and confirmed, so we look for answers that do just that, such as, “I, too, thought she was very bright!” or “His commitment to diversity seemed obvious to us as well.” You aren’t learning anything if that’s the road you’re traveling.
7. Finally do not be afraid to dig and dig some more. A ten-minute reference isn’t worth a whole lot. You have to take a dive deep and look for evidence and examples. An honest referral should provide those.