7 Benefits of Off-List References

If you have worked most of your career in academia, it is likely you have served on or chaired a search committee for a senior administrative hire and are familiar with the intense process of searching for the right leader.  You have spent valuable time in listening sessions expressing your ideas and concerns for the future of the institution, sifted through numerous applications and evaluated them against rigorous qualifications specified in the leadership profile, and now you are selecting semi-finalists for neutral site interviews.  The question can arise at this point about when candidates’ references should be engaged.  As executive search consultants, we recommend speaking with candidates’ on-list references before semi-finalist interviews, since they can provide a useful backdrop for the interview conversations.  

On-list references are beneficial as they often weave a theme or a thread that confirms traits and characteristics derived from a candidate’s application materials and the interview process.  However, when speaking with on-list references, we sometimes detect an area of concern, a hesitation in the dialogue, or something that is NOT being said by the reference.  These are all excellent reasons to make us pause and not just rely on references provided by the candidate.  With so much at stake in making a critical hire, we have an obligation to conduct our due diligence and should never shortchange the process.   

Below are seven key benefits of speaking with off-list references:

  • Through off-list references, you obtain more candid opinions and feedback. When going off-list, it is imperative to obtain permission from the candidate in order to let them know in case such a conversation could jeopardize a current job.  If so, there are other options such as asking the candidate for additional references.  Gaining permission enables the consultant to inform the off-list reference the candidate has granted permission and creates a more open environment in which the off-list reference can speak.  
  • Off-list references provide another means of confirming claims made by a candidate.  They provide another layer of evaluation of the candidate’s experience and characteristics, and they reinforce statements made by on-list references as well as by the candidate during the interview process.
  • Search Committee members may have areas they would like to learn more about or to probe further to complete the picture.  It's not that we are out to "get" candidates or elicit negative comments, but that we feel we can get a more complete understanding by speaking with those who are not listed by the candidate.
  • Speaking with additional references expands the field of individuals who know and can speak about the candidate.  These additional conversations allow us to connect with peers and/or direct reports that may not have been provided in the candidate’s initial group of references, thereby providing a 360-degree perspective on the candidate’s professional experience.
  • Reaching out to off-list references can allow a Search Committee to gain perspectives from various points in a candidate’s career.  On-list references tend to be more recent, while off-list references can reach back to earlier positions, again providing a broader perspective on the individual’s work and career progression.
  • A lukewarm on-list reference or inconsistencies among on-list references is another reason to go off-list.  Contacting people who are not on the list can fill in the gaps and often tell a candidate’s story more fully.  
  • The cost of making a bad hire in itself justifies the additional time it takes to speak with a broader group of references.  The wrong hire not only costs the organization/institution in terms of onboarding and training costs, but the morale of other employees and institutional reputation may also suffer.