The Importance of Candidate Referencing During the Search Process

A new report by executive recruiting firm McCracken Executive Search sheds light on candidate referencing and how it should be used during the search process. Let’s take a look at the findings.

May 1, 2018 – Too many search consultants and their clients treat finalist candidate referencing as little more than a checklist item to be completed as opposed to a valuable exercise in and of itself, with the potential to yield insights of lasting value, according to a new report by McCracken Executive Search.

Recruiters generally view the completion of a search assignment in the same way investment bankers acting for a corporate purchaser celebrate the closing of an acquisition, said the firm’s senior partner Gary McCracken. While it may be the “end” for the bankers, it is a beginning for the purchasing client. “The hard work of integration, reaping synergies and generating new opportunities all lies ahead,” said the report. “It is much the same with hiring a new executive. The search assignment may be complete, but the real work of integrating the new executive and realizing their potential (for you and themselves) has barely started, let alone been finished.”

With more than 20 years in the search industry, Mr. McCracken has executed assignments for virtually all C-suite executive roles and their direct reports, across a broad range of industries and settings. He has recruited senior executives and board directors for organizations of every size, including inaugural CEOs and even entire boards of directors for newly formed entities. He is as comfortable, and effective, with newer, rapidly changing businesses as he is with more established companies dealing with team development and succession issues.

Before referencing candidates, he said, it helps to be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you merely deciding whether to proceed further with the candidate? Might you also be interested in gaining insight into how best to work with the individual? In other words, are you simply determining whether to work with them or also how to work with them?

“There is much more than this to be determined from a proper referencing process including, for example, potential insight into your offer terms,” Mr. McCracken said. “But let’s focus here on the question of how you would best work with the candidate in question.”

Equal but Different

Every successful coach knows that team members collectively represent a wide range of personalities, skills and needs. “Managing and motivating everyone identically is far from optimal,” said Mr. McCracken. “You may treat them more or less equally (though in pro sports this is clearly not so), but that doesn’t mean you work with each of them identically. Some need a lot of praise. Others respond better to encouragement and/or constructive criticism. Some need a lot of interaction. Others need to be left alone, to do what they do with a minimum of oversight.”

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“A good formal referencing process should provide insight into such differences,” he said. “Obviously, referencing can also provide some useful comparisons for final selection purposes between, say, the final two candidates. They’re probably both excellent. But they’re almost certainly quite different as well.”


From everyone’s perspective, including your executive search partner, there is an understandable hope that the formal referencing (conducted near the completion of a formal search assignment) will support and corroborate the considerable candidate development and evaluation work preceding it.

“This is only human nature,” said Mr. McCracken. “On the other hand, if there are candidate issues that need to be identified and addressed, it is obviously far better for everyone to do so during the due diligence stage, rather than afterwards. So you should be very careful…even leery…of any formal referencing process that, consciously or otherwise, amounts to little more than a simple thumbs up, thumbs down.”

Consider Participating Yourself

“While many search consultants might cringe at the prospect, Mr. McCracken said he recommends taking a personal role in the referencing process. “It is important that you do not simply do the referencing yourself, as a client. You have (or at least should have) selected and retained your search consultant for their expertise and objectivity.”

Close the Book on Searches and Hire the Best Candidates Quickly
Here’s a storyline that – unfortunately – plays out far too frequently: After interviewing all three final candidates for a senior level position, the members of the hiring team can’t come to a conclusion on which is best for the job…

“Like hiring a lawyer to defend you, if you don’t trust and respect your advisors, you shouldn’t hire them in the first place!” said Mr. McCracken. “So trust your search partner’s expertise and professionalism. But consider getting personally involved in the process as well. After completing an in-depth referencing interview (properly done, a 20 to 30 minute undertaking), I always ask whether the reference provider (conventionally a former superior, peer or subordinate of the candidate) would be open to a call from the person to whom the prospective candidate will report.”

Related: Five Ways to Identify Transformational Talent

The purpose of any such conversation is to allow both sides – the reference provider and the candidate’s prospective “boss” – to clarify, expand upon and/or drill down on anything set out in the reference reporting, he said. “In over 20 years, I’ve never once had a reference provider decline a direct conversation of this nature…or even express reservations about doing so.”

Although few clients actually make such calls, there is a certain comfort in knowing that they can, both before and after hiring the candidate in question. “Personally, I think more clients should make one or more of those calls,” said Mr. McCracken.

Bottom Line

Formal referencing is a critical step in a thorough executive search assignment, he concluded: “It is not a merely a hurdle to be cleared. Nor is it a process of simply hunting for concerns or potential problems. It is a valuable tool for objectively evaluating and better understanding the impressive person you’re about to hire, in order to ensure you make the most of your considerable investment in them.”

Related: Five Strategies to Making the Right Hire

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Will Schatz, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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