Reference Calls — Listen for the Truth (8 Tips)

I was a newer principal, and I had recently dismissed a pre-tenured teacher. She wasn’t terrible, just not good enough for my students. I had written her a reference letter, the kind you write for just this type of situation — strengths, as everyone has them, with lots of holes that I hoped other interviewing administrators would find. Then I took a call from a principal in a nearby district. We knew each other by association, but that’s all. He was eager to hire her, and this call was his final stop. I answered his questions, and thought, “I hope he listened carefully, and realized that I wasn’t really recommending her.”

Years later, this principal and I landed together in a new district. Early in our professional relationship, he told me, “You know, I had to let that teacher go after one year. I couldn’t believe you had recommended her to me – I was always so annoyed about that!” “What?” I said. “I didn’t recommend her! I was trying to tell you NOT to hire her!” It was a perfect example of what happens over and over again. He was listening only to confirm his decision to hire her, and I was being positive, and hoping he could read my mind.

I share this story often in my current role as Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. Administrators (and hiring executives in other organizations, I am sure) work diligently to find the very best person for their opening. They carefully comb through applications and resumes, conduct screening interviews, 1:1 interviews, and often team interviews. By the time they get to the reference checks — well, that’s what they are often doing — checking a box. This is the last step in the process of finding the Perfect Person. They are already sold on the candidate, and, if they brought in a team to interview, so is the team! Who wants bad news at this point? And so, like my principal friend from many years ago, they miss what a reference might be trying to convey in an oh-so-indirect way.

Hiring is one of our most important administrative tasks, particularly when hiring teachers and principals. This is the time when we really need to get it right, because getting it wrong can make for a very, very bad year. (And, depending on a whole bunch of variables, one mistake can be prolonged for much longer than a year.) So, how do we get it right? Here are a few tips:


  1. Before starting to make those calls, promise yourself that you are open to hearing bad news. Honestly, that’s what is most important. In fact, when I interview with a team, I ALWAYS talk about how important reference calls are, and let team members know that sometimes we have to go another way after we’ve made those calls. Experienced interview teams know that the person who came to the interview is not always the person who “shows up” at work, even if it is the same person! When I remind my team of that, they are understanding if we end up going with our #2 choice, or even if we have to interview more candidates.
  2. Try to establish rapport with your reference at the start of the call. Yes, yes, everyone is busy, but find a way to connect with the reference as a person. It will be harder for your reference to evade your questions or straight out lie to you if he/she likes you on the phone — even a little bit!
  3. Do you have flexibility with your questions? If so, make sure to ask, “Would you re-hire this person?” Or, if you are speaking with a colleague, you may get useful information with, “Why do you think X would be interested in coming to a new school/district/organization?” And if the first answer you get seems bogus, find a way to dig a little.
  4. Even if you have to use a standard set of questions, surely you can ask follow-ups. When I sense that someone is choosing words very carefully, or is trying to brush past a question with a pat answer, I may ask, “Can you tell me more about that?” Often, they will.
  5. Pay attention to the reference’s tone of voice, and listen for the pauses. Your reference may be trying to figure out how to answer a question in a way that is semi-truthful without hurting the person’s chances for getting the job. This is the perfect place for those follow-up questions.
  6. What about those references who ask you to simply email them the questions, and they’ll email you the answers? Yes, they might just be really busy, but they MIGHT be trying to control the situation by carefully wording their answers. You can’t see pauses in an email, you can’t hear tone of voice, and asking follow-up questions is then even more time-consuming. I try very hard to get people to talk to me on the phone. When they won’t, I don’t necessarily decide that there is a problem with the candidate, but I don’t put much stock in that particular reference.
  7. Think carefully about who you are calling. For the most part, avoid calling your candidates’ colleagues, or only do so if you are also calling a supervisor or two. A teacher’s teammate is rarely going to tell you that his/her colleague had classroom management problems or didn’t communicate well with parents, and an administrator’s lateral co-worker is unlikely to tell you that projects were not finished on time. I won’t hire anyone without speaking with his/her current supervisor, although certainly I will agree to make that call last, after I’m satisfied with the results of other calls. Also, you may be able to glean quite a lot of information from a supervisor from 2-3 years ago. Sometimes, the supervisor won’t remember much — but sometimes he/she will remember A LOT, and will be ready to talk when no longer in regular contact with the candidate.
  8. Finally, use your resources. The best reference call is with someone you know. Even if you don’t know any of your candidate’s references, someone else who is part of the hiring process might! If so, hand that call over to your colleague to get the most truthful information.

I still enjoy a friendship with that principal colleague who hired that marginal teacher. We still talk about this. We both learned. We are both still learning.

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