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The best-kept secret in onboarding tools? Candidate references.

by Alana Althans (she/her/hers)

Traditionally, references act as a mode of verification during the interview process after meeting and speaking with a candidate. Hiring managers often use them to confirm if the candidate is who they say they are, and to determine whether or not they will be a good fit for the organization. But the power of references doesn’t end with deciding who to hire. They can also be an effective tool for developing and implementing onboarding practices for new employees.

How references can improve the onboarding experience:

When cultivated correctly, references can offer great insight into a new hire’s social styles, from how they approach group tasks to how they give and receive feedback. Understanding these types of behaviors can help the onboarding team identify where they may need to be more thoughtful and deliberate in training so that the new hire is well supported. This could mean adding extra time to training, scheduling continued check-ins after training, or having a conversation with the manager about the things to pay attention to in order for the new hire to be successful in their role.

4 tips for effectively gathering and using references for onboarding:

  • Create a reference guide that’s focused on understanding candidates’ working and social styles. Go deeper than a checklist of contacts. Include questions in the guide that ask how the candidate works ( both their strengths and the skills where they are still growing) as well as how they interact with information and feedback (such as being expressive or taking time to reflect). Here are some sample questions: 
    • Of all the hires you’ve made, how would you rank this candidate in terms of performance? What percentile are they in? Why?
    • How would you describe this candidate’s key areas for development?
    • Compared to other managers you’ve had, how would you rank this candidate as a manager? 
    • Where do you think this candidate would have the biggest learning curve, as it relates to the role?
  • Determine which references you want—and let the candidates know—as early as possible. Think about who you want to hear from as references (peers, managers, direct reports) and develop specific reasons for why you’re asking for them, using the role itself as a guide. For example, will this person be overseeing a manager, or working closely with a board member? Finding people who can speak to those kinds of experiences can help address how a candidate would approach the role once in the seat. Also, it’s usually most helpful to get references from people who know the candidate really well and have also worked with them recently. Once you have your list, communicate this information to candidates early on so they have ample time to voice any questions or concerns.

  • Be mindful of context and prepared to accommodate. It’s important to understand that not every candidate may have all the references you ask for given their experience. They might be applying to a small entrepreneurial team but are coming from a large corporation. Their last role may have been in a relatively flat organization, so they don’t have a direct report. They might run the risk of losing their job if they approach their current manager for a reference. Have a plan for how you can accommodate these types of situations, such as an offering contingent on a final manager reference or speaking to a recent manager and current peer, to help candidates feel more secure.

  • Encourage candidates to be open about any challenges. If a candidate feels they have challenges at their current organization that prevent them from obtaining a reference, let them know that they can speak fairly and honestly about the issues they’re facing. Ask them to cite specific examples of the things that aren’t working for them, and how or where they came about. This will help candidates feel much more at ease about the process, and it may even reveal a solution they hadn’t thought of for how to get a reference from their current company. 

The Takeaway

The goal of the hiring process is to develop a holistic understanding of your candidate. You want to learn about their strengths and the times they demonstrated competencies of the role well, but you also want to know how they learn from mistakes and rise to challenges. Gathering the right information from references  and using it during onboarding better set up your new hire for success.