Further Questions: Does your organization ask for references?

Each week (or thereabouts) I ask a question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you have a question to ask or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

This week’s question is all about references, and it’s long so I’ve bulleted it out.

Does your organization ask for references?

  • What do you ask for? (how many, format, etc)
  • When do you ask for references?
  • Do you make any judgments based on who is or is not included (current supervisor, former direct reports, prestige of institutions, etc.)?  
  • If you call references, what are some of the questions you ask and how do the answers affect your decision to hire? 
  • Does your organization follow any practices meant to reduce bias or inequity in the reference check process?
  • Do you have any stories about a decision to hire being affected by a reference check?

Laurie Phillips, Associate Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans:

What do you ask for? We ask for three and we ask for name, title, and contact information. Generally, we need both an email address and a phone number.

When do you ask for references? Good question. We ask for references as part of the application process. If you’re asking when we check them, that has varied over the years. We used to sometimes call references after first round interviews for the people we were still considering, in order to narrow them down to a final 3 or 4. We’ll often do first round interviews with quite a few people, just so we know we’re not missing anyone. Several years ago, we decided that we would check references only on the finalists, probably before we invited them to campus, or before they came. We could check references on only our final choice, but then that holds up the offer/hiring process. For staff, we tend to only check references for the final candidate OR if we’re using them to make a decision after final interviews. Usually, before we contact references, we’ll get in touch with the candidate to let them know that we’re contacting their references and to ask if they want to make any changes to their list (based on availability, etc.).
Do you make any judgments based on who is or is not included? I think some places ask for current supervisor, but we don’t. Honestly, my only point of judgment has been if someone gives us a library school professor as a reference and they cannot answer any of the questions in a meaningful way.
When library faculty are hired, they have to have three written references for their file.
If you call references, what are some of the questions you ask and how do the answers affect your decision to hire? For staff, there is a form that HR requires us to use. There is a question about whether the person would ever be a danger to others and that usually makes people laugh. For library faculty, we ask about job performance, leadership skills, interpersonal and communication skills, notable accomplishments or innovations, what we would need to do to support his/her/their development, and why this job is a great fit for them.
If a reference can’t answer those questions, it’s pretty telling.
Does your organization follow any practices meant to reduce bias or inequity in the reference check process? We haven’t, but may going forward. We are currently examining all of our hiring processes.
Do you have any stories about a decision to hire being affected by a reference check? Not necessarily a decision to hire, although I think references weigh in when you’re making a final decision, and it’s more about what they described than how effusive they were. We hired a staff member and their reference (a colleague at another library) said that they were a great support to library users, but that we would have to be clear about expectations regarding attendance, etc. This person was exactly as their former supervisor described. Absolutely wonderful with students, faculty, emeritus faculty, etc., but had a difficult time getting to work on time and being present. It was a constant struggle. I don’t know if we would make the same decision again.

Kellee Forkenbrock, Public Services Librarian, North Liberty Community Library: We’ve recently reinstituted asking for references for our part-time staff. Every applicant is asked to supply three professional references. I ask for references at the time of an offer contingent on the references’ feedback. There are no judgments based on the type of reference provided. The references can be anyone who worked with the candidate in a professional capacity (i.e. colleague, direct report, manager, etc.). We keep the dialogue with the references conversational but also focused and brief. Typically, we lead with questions like “What three words best describe you experience working with our candidate?” and “Would you rehire the candidate if the opportunity presented itself?” The responses are taken with a grain of salt, as most candidates select references based on the positive feedback they will provide during the call. As hiring librarians, we do our best to hear the authentic parts of the praise.

Donna Pierce, Library Director, Krum Public Library: I really don’t pay much attention to references.  I look occasionally but HR is the one who would call – and if they do they have never told me the result!  Plus in today’s world most companies will only say “yes I would rehire them” or “no I would not rehire them” so not much point in talking with them!  And you have to figure personal references are going to be pretty much “of course they are wonderful”!

Alison M. Armstrong, Collection Management Librarian, Radford University: We ask for references when candidates apply and usually check them between the phone interview and the in-person interview.

We ask references standardized questions. We ask follow up questions if needed for clarification but, when you are trying to take notes on what is being said, it can be a challenge to think quickly enough to think about what additional questions might arise from their response unless something just doesn’t make sense in the moment.

The questions are general and pretty common: How long have you known them and in what capacity, their strengths and weaknesses, leadership skills, and communication style, etc. We try to share with the search committee the exact words that were said so they can judge the response for themselves and not through the filter/bias of the person doing the reference check.

While one person may hear, “hands-on leadership and take-charge attitude” and think that person would be a fantastic boat captain, another may think, they will micromanage me to death. Without much more to go on, it is hard to tell.

I used to hyper-analyze word choices used by references but, I have since recognized that they doing their best on the spot to make their colleague look as good as possible while also trying to be completely honest. If they have worked closely with them, they have likely seen some faults. If they choose to share them with you, they will probably try to do it in the most flattering light possible. This means that if anything noticeably negative is said in a way that raises a red flag for you, take note.

On the flip-side, if the committee is conflicted about what to make of something a reference said because some think it could be a red flag, don’t let the reference check be the thing that ends it. I recommend giving the candidate the benefit of the doubt and let it play out. We shouldn’t let the word choice of a reference determine whether a candidate moves forward in the process.

Obviously, if something the reference discloses seems egregious, it is time to move on. You usually learn those things from the candidate in direct and indirect ways, not from their reference, though.

In situations where “off-list references” are checked, you are more likely to gain a broader, and perhaps clearer, perception of the candidate, especially if the candidate’s direct reports/staff can be interviewed.

Anonymous: I think my current municipality asks for references on the application form, but we do not actually check them. I wish we did. If we have connections through our network to someone who has worked with an applicant, my director or I may reach out on our own to ask a few informal questions.

In a prior job, we did conduct reference checks. We asked for three previous supervisors, though for candidates with unusual situations (little work experience, long time out of the workforce, etc.) we would accept fewer and/or talk to peers as well as supervisors. I conducted reference checks via phone calls, which usually lasted about 10-20 minutes and covered basic topics like confirming that the applicant was employed in a given position at a given time, areas of strength and areas for development, how a candidate dealt with things like conflict/upset people and receiving feedback, etc. I never changed my mind about hiring someone based on a reference check. We did them after we’d already extended a conditional offer, so changing my mind at that point would have had to mean there was some pretty significant concern that had come to light. I do think I should have reconsidered an offer once or twice, though – there were a couple of times when I got some information about some behaviors that I thought I could deal with or wouldn’t be a major issue that then turned out to cause bigger problems with the employee. (They weren’t necessarily big black marks that would make someone unemployable overall, just things that made them not a great fit for our needs or a particular role.) I chalk that up to the learning curve of being a new manager! More often, though, reference checks functioned as a confirmation of what I had gathered from interviews about the person’s fit and personality, and helped me get a better sense of who they were as an employee and what their needs might be from other people who had managed them, so I was better prepared to support them as they joined my team.

Elizabeth “Beth” Cox, Director, Cataloging, Metadata & Digitization Dept., University of Iowa Libraries:

Does your organization ask for references? Yes
What do you ask for? We ask for a minimum of three references. Depending on the situation, we may ask for more. We have two different formats. One is a survey form with 22 questions using a 7-point Likert scale, two yes-no questions, and two open-ended questions. The second option is reference phone calls. These are usually done by the search chair.
Do you make any judgments based on who is or is not included? Generally, no, but it depends on the situation and the candidates. I will almost always want a current or recent supervisor, unless the candidate can provide a really good reason why they can’t or don’t want to. If the position has a supervisory component, I may ask for a current or former direct report.
If you call references, what are some of the questions you ask and how do the answers affect your decision to hire? If I call references, the questions are usually tailored to the position. For example, if the position includes lots of collaboration with staff in other departments, I will ask the references about the candidates experience working with teams or on group projects. The responses from the reference calls are one more data point in helping us make a hiring decision.
When do you ask for references? I ask for them after the on-site interview. Sometimes it’s pro forma; sometimes the responses can be useful in making a decision.

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: My university system asks for names and contact information for three references for all searches regardless of status (faculty, staff, adjunct staff, etc.). Some candidates upload reference letters but we don’t ask for them so I never read them because we don’t get them from all candidates. The online application form also asks for names of recent supervisors and includes a question about whether we can contact them. So even if someone does not include a supervisor on their list of three, we have the option of going to look to see if we can contact additional people.

We generally only call references, meaning we don’t ask for written ones. I usually ask a reference who is/was a supervisor to describe the work the candidate does. It can be interesting to consider together how a candidate describes their work and how the supervisor does. I might ask about an area for growth depending on the position. Asking this questions leaves the response open-ended enough that it might point an area where the candidate needs more training or it could identify interesting directions that a candidate might like to move in, e.g., more supervision or leadership experience, etc. I also do like to ask whether the reference has anything additional they want to add. These days people (including me) providing references tend to be very careful and to err on the side of being vague. But I have had references volunteer very helpful information. I have had a reference indicate that a candidate might seem very quiet when, in fact, they are an active and engaged member of a team. In a recent staff search I hear candidates described as kind and generous which was really lovely.

I do recall cases where I have asked if the person would be rehired if possible and received a negative response. That certainly factored into my thinking but, in at least one case, it did not tell me anything that changed my overall assessment. In most cases I hear positive things that sometimes can help provide some balance for a weak in-person interview.

I prefer to contact references after in-person (in whatever format) interviews. We can leave an interview having the candidate know and also ask about contacting someone who might not be on their list if we want to. I applied for a director position once and my references were contacted after the phone interview (I was told this was happening). I had not yet informed my references (including my provost) and was not happy about having to do it after the phone interview given that I had no idea whether I would advance in the search. Even though I eventually ended up with the job it was awkward.

Anonymous: I am pleased that you are asking these questions. The current place I am at requires 3 professional references. The caller is allowed to ask when the applicant worked with them and to describe their working relationship. The call is not supposed to last more than 5 minutes. In the past, at different libraries there were no reference calls, but an electronic form sent to the references. I actually don’t know what the questions were, but I filled a couple of these reference forms out in the past and they are pretty low stakes for the referenced person and the person who is the reference. To be honest the questions are really forgettable-and I can’t think of a single one.
One story I heard from a colleague was that they were calling a reference for a potential worker and the person answering was obviously high or drunk and rambled for a few minutes and hung up on them. The person got hired (still works at that library too) and I believe it was never discussed. I am curious to see what people say about references. I think that now you can look on Instagram or some other social media and call that a reference these days.

Julie Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College:

What do you ask for? We have always had specific forms to “fill in” for “performing” reference checks. These forms ask the typical questions that include strengths and weaknesses, feedback on specific areas of work conduct and – of course -“… would you recommend this person for the position I have?” and “….would you rehire this person in your organization?” We used to have a requirement of three reference checks AND we would – on the application form – ask for both professional and personal references. Now they still recommend three, but you only need two if both of those are/were a supervisor of the applicant. It becomes an issue if there are no supervisors on either the applicant’s paperwork or on their resume. We then ask them for names very directly and – if they haven’t told us this already (which they should have) – they might say “Should I advance to one of more identified finalists in the process, I would be happy to provide you with supervisor names.” And there is nothing wrong with that – given people often don’t want their supervisor to know they are looking and don’t want a litany of reference checks. A candidate does take a risk if they do that; however, as it is not uncommon that there are several finalists – so someone could wait to find out if they are a finalist, provide their supervisor’s name, we call them and although they have done well throughout the process – do NOT end up being offered the job because in the end they are not the best match.
When do you ask for references? When an applicant fills out an application they are asked for references. Their automated application form does go forward; however, if they don’t include references – but if we want them – post interviewing – to advance to a finalist stage, we ask them for three references and state that at least two of them have to be people who have supervised them. I would have to say there are more instances of us picking finalists and then ranking them and calling references on our first pick only and if those are satisfactory – we go with that person, but we could also have several openings and call on all finalists and we could have one job with two top contenders for that one job and call both before we decide.

Do you make any judgments based on who is or is not included? Of course, if I know the people with whom others have worked and I respect them, their work and their judgement – that carries weight; however, the reputation of an institution is nothing I care about BUT if I know – for example – the manager at their previous job (or in their current job) is known for a unique expertise or for mentoring or any unique preparation for new or “next” jobs, that is good to know.

What I do very much care about is the match of the job they had to the one I am offering and – even more so – if the job is not similar – how the applicant performed in areas that may well have prepared them for my job. Example – if they are in a creative position where details are less important or fewer are found and I have a very detail-oriented job for them OR they are at an institution that is very low-tech and I am very high-tech, I am interested in any information the reference can give me about a related project they did or a parallel activity, or their independent work, continuing education focus or technology acumen.
If you call references, what are some of the questions you ask and how do the answers affect your decision to hire? We have specific questions we ask to complete our form. To help the person I am calling for a reference focus, it is best to provide them with context. For example – if one of your required questions is one on ability to work with a team – you might say – our organization is team-driven and our employees all serve on one or more teams or lead or co-lead a team. Please tell me – in their role as x in your institution, did they lead teams? to complete a project? to reorganize a department? train on new infrastructure software?
Does your organization follow any practices meant to reduce bias or inequity in the reference check process? I know there are very specific steps we take to reduce bias in the design of the job advertisement, during the applicant screening process and in the interview process. What comes to mind for reference checking is avoiding specific terminology of your own as well as stopping use of terminology In the reference check process. One can also stop reference checks exchanges from bringing things into the conversation that have no relevance. For example, if a reference refers to the age of the person you are asking about – as “too young,” “too old,” “not enough experience based on age,” etc. you might say “Unrelated to age of the applicant – what would you say their experience includes and how did that experience contribute to the success of your organization or your user?”

Also if you check references for more than one finalist, be sure to ask each reference the same questions about applicant/finalist(s) – that way comparisons are equitable.
Do you have any stories about a decision to hire being affected by a reference check? Sort of! Things to look for that might influence your hire might include:

  • too few remarks from the reference
  • the reference stating they feel uncomfortable commenting on something and choosing to pass on commenting or answering the question
  • a reference saying, yes they will provide a reference, but only as to the job title they held when they left and their salary level when they left
  • a statement saying they would NOT rehire (obviously)
  • a reference check acknowledging …”it sounds like their resume indicates they did x for me and they did not have that role when they worked for me”….or “that is not the project they worked on when they were here”….or “it sounds like they were saying their were full time but for me – they worked hourly.”
  • asking the reference check for example “To my question about them working successfully on teams, you said “they worked on teams while they were here.” So are you saying they were successful in their teamwork? And the reference check saying, “No, I am not saying that. I am saying they worked on teams.”

If you want a reference check story – and you asked for one – I can share one about when I was called to be a reference for someone who had briefly worked for me, but most of her time was spent reporting to someone else who worked for me. Her work was NOT satisfactory but it was the kind of situation where you have that knowledge through a few examples – but it really comes out after they leave when things are uncovered AND people start speaking up. SO – I was surprised this person was leaving since they had been in their position only a short time but I did get the call.

I chose to handle it as honestly as I could by saying – when asked things like “tell me about her leadership skills” or “tell me about her management skills” I would honestly say: “I don’t feel as if I can answer that as I didn’t have a chance to observe those.” And, I couldn’t answer because “she did not work here in a role that called for her to take a leadership role in a project.” When asked about more specificity I also said I felt comfortable saying “I couldn’t answer that because her span of control here was x and the position they were calling about had a significantly larger span of control.” I don’t know whether or not they got the picture OR if they decided to take the chance anyway…at some point people feel they know best and – frankly – under different circumstances she may well have performed differently. What it reinforced for ME was the fact that I could speak to my specific experience with someone, but not apply it uniformly to others as some want you to do.

We’d love to hear your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter @HiringLib, or written on your eyelids. If you have a question to ask people who hire library workers, or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers them, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

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