7 Tips for Fact-Based Interviews and Obtaining Better References

by Jonathan Yung in — August 2018

Friends and acquaintances often ask me if I, as an executive recruiter, have an especially good feeling for people. I often get a disappointed look when I explain that unfortunately, we do not have supernatural powers.

Hiring on empathy looks like a great approach to the layperson. After all, if you are going to spend 8+ hours a day with someone, it is better when you really like them, right? Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schulz has an opinion on that.

“I hire people who were well-trained by their mothers. Good manners are the best training process we have.”

Howard’s message is simple: hire people for the skills you cannot teach them. “Unteachable” skills may include good manners, certain technical skills, languages, and strong relationships in a particular industry. A smart person may be able to learn a new industry much faster and more easily than how to use a specific software design pattern.

A competencies-based interview along with a technical evaluation can help you reduce that “feelings” bias. References are another important point. Colleagues who have spent hours a day with a person for years can tell you more than you can learn in 45 minutes over coffee.

Blog 2018 7 Tips For Fact Based Interviews And Obtaining Better References

The Power of References

A recent encounter reminded me of how much stock we put in references. My friend Bob (named changed) got in touch with me the other week. He had started dating my friend Jackie (named also changed). Little did I know it, but Bob was getting in touch to check her references with me.

7 Tips for Good References

  • Make sure you understand the relationship between the referring person and the candidate. How long have they known each other? How often do they keep in touch? Take references from friends with a grain of salt.
  • Remember to check up on specific competencies related to the candidate’s new job and ask about areas that need improvement. It is all too easy to focus on the strengths and forget to mention weaknesses.
  • Specific stories are more meaningful than general compliments. Listen for words that multiple referrers use.
  • The moment of truth is often in the awkward pause.
  • Concrete examples beat assumptions every time.
  • When interviewing a friend, remember to ask “Who else worked for/with Bob?”
  • Also revealing: answers to “What tips do you have for managing Bob?”


Speaking of Bob: he and Jackie are still dating. Apparently their references checked out!