Behavioral Referencing: Making the Most of Reference Conversations

The merits of behavioral interviewing have long been touted as a way to understand how a candidate for a particular position will perform in specific situations.  As Katherine Hansen has noted, the premise behind behavioral interviewing is that the most accurate predictor of future performance is past performance in similar situations.  Behavioral interviewing has been found to be 55 percent predictive of future performance, while traditional interviewing is only 10 percent predictive. (citation)

In my reading, I have yet to come across the term “behavioral referencing,” but such an approach to conducting reference conversations should produce much richer information for those making hiring decisions, including search committees.  In full disclosure, in my 25 years as a higher education administrator, I did not regularly use a behavioral approach to referencing in the many hiring decisions I made.  In retrospect, I realize that I tended to ask questions that reinforced what I already was thinking about a candidate—especially one that I was quite sure I wanted to hire!  It was only after moving into executive search consulting that I came to appreciate the full value of referencing that focuses on a candidate’s behavior in specific situations.

So how, exactly, does behavioral referencing differ from typical reference discussions?  Most hiring authorities and search committees are interested in knowing about a candidate’s approach to leadership.  A typical reference question might ask, “Can you tell me about Jennifer’s leadership style?”  This question will provide some valuable information, such as, “Jennifer is a highly collaborative leader.”  Consider, for a moment, asking the question in a somewhat different way: “Can you describe a time when Jennifer’s leadership skills were put to the test?  How did her response demonstrate how she leads?”  By asking the question in this way, I might hear about how Jennifer led the institution through a budget crisis, how she made difficult decisions but included others in her decision-making, and how she clearly communicated the rationale for her decisions to the community.  I now have a more vivid, real-world example of Jennifer as a leader.

Another example focuses on learning more about a candidate’s possible limitations or gaps. Consider “Tell me about John’s weaknesses in leading Financial Services” in comparison to “Can you explain what John’s constructive critics might say about him as he led the Financial Services area?  Is that feedback justified, in your opinion?” In this example, rather than putting the referee on the defensive and hearing a standard response like “Nothing really comes to mind,” I’ve now asked for constructive feedback that the individual may have heard or observed about John.  “Constructive feedback” is much less intimidating than “weaknesses” or “limitations,” and the referee is much more likely to provide information that is valuable in learning more about the candidate.  The referee might say, “Some might say John takes a long time in making a decision, but that is the best approach in our shared governance environment.”

As a final example, you might want to know about a candidate’s ability to handle a heavy workload or multiple, closely-timed deadlines.  I could ask, “How does Susan handle pressure in the workplace?”  In response, I might hear a generic response to the effect of, “Oh, she’s very balanced and handles pressure well.”  That tells me a bit, but not as much as I would hope to learn.  Instead, consider the following version: “Can you describe a situation that was stressful for Susan and how she handled it?”  With this approach, I am more likely to hear something like, “Working through our budget challenges last year certainly had to be stressful, but Susan used evidence and developed multiple scenarios to show us our options.  If she felt stressed, she didn’t show it.”

Behavioral referencing may not always provide perfect information, but the chances of eliciting useful information during reference calls is much greater when the reference has the opportunity to recall specific situations and share actual examples.  Such information can provide additional reassurance to a search committee or hiring manager that Jennifer, John, and Susan have the necessary experience to take on a new role and deliver results that will help to successfully move the institution forward.