Reference audits are a vital part of the executive search process. They illuminate characteristics about a candidate that aren’t always obvious or visible through the interview process. They also directly speak to a candidate’s potential to be successful in a role and fit within your company’s culture, answering questions like:

  • How does the candidate work with their peers?
  • What is the candidate’s leadership/management style?
  • What kind of team has the candidate built; how have their team members progressed in their careers?
  • How does the candidate handle challenging or stressful situations?
  • What working environment does the candidate thrive in?

Therefore, as part of a thorough and successful search process, it is critical to complete a comprehensive reference audit before extending an offer to a senior leader. With traditional references, it can be tempting to cut corners and “mail-in” formal references in order to close the role, but reference audits are a vitally important step to increase a candidate’s potential success.

Reference audits are a much deeper dive into behavioral aspects of the candidate’s background, and not all executive search firms use this process. It’s important that you understand the steps involved and how to interpret the information that is gathered, so that you can select the best candidate for the position.

What the HFA Reference Audit Entails

To start, one formal reference is not enough. To get a 360-degree understanding of your candidate, we recommend targeting a minimum of six references, which should include bosses, peers, and direct reports who have worked with the candidate in their last three roles (or over the last ten years). At HFA, we will work with the candidate on defining the right references, as the appropriate seniority and brand can actually increase the candidate’s credibility, in addition to providing valuable feedback. For example, some reference audits should include speaking to board members and industry analysts/leaders, depending on the position you are looking to fill.

Equally, if not more importantly, we recommend that you also complete back-channel references; these are references that were not supplied by the candidate. In some cases, these additional colleagues can be identified from conversations with an existing reference, as the reference may mention others that worked closely with the candidate, or you may specifically ask if the reference knows of additional colleagues to contact. Alternatively, HFA may already know a source who was employed by a company at the same time as the candidate and can reach out to arrange a conversation.

Sometimes the feedback from these back-channel references will be consistent with the on-sheet references, but in some cases, they may shed new light on the candidate. This additional step provides an extra layer of assurance that a candidate will succeed in the role.

How to Interpret the Results

When the reference audit is complete, you should have a summary of the strengths and developmental areas for the candidate and a detailed summary of the conversations. This will serve to reveal your candidate’s true personality and working style and enable you to make an informed decision on whether to hire the candidate and how to best ensure their success after the hire.

When it comes to making that decision, it’s important to view the references in their totality. Every candidate will have both strengths and areas of concern – no one is perfect. Ideally, a candidate’s strengths will outnumber or outweigh their weaknesses, but you should never minimize the significance of any potential red flags. As mentioned in a previous post, the biggest mistake you can make is to ignore the warning signs that someone will not be a good cultural fit within your company.

In many cases, there are outlier reference points – for instance, a negative comment that is difficult to ignore. However, you must consider the reference in context. Perhaps the contact simply didn’t get along with the candidate – or maybe they have an ulterior motive for providing a negative point of view. Also, keep in mind that it’s unlikely that a candidate’s skills have remained stagnant over the course of a long career. For example, if a reference worked with a candidate eight years ago and noted that the candidate lacked strong leadership skills, it’s highly likely that the candidate developed those skills in subsequent roles. Furthermore, you should also consider how long this negative reference worked with the candidate to determine if this is a truly informed opinion. Accordingly, if there is a negative outlier reference, take the time to investigate.  Go back to other references and ask more pointed questions in the flagged area or find new references to speak to in order to gather more information.

The best practice is to look for consistencies and trends across the range of references; these will paint the most comprehensive picture of the candidate. If your references are largely positive, and the featured strengths match the characteristics you are seeking, then you should feel confident in the candidate’s ability to do the job.

At Howard Fischer Associates, we take the reference process very seriously. We can help you identify a comprehensive sample of contacts to interview, enabling you to select a candidate who will succeed in the role and fit the culture of your company. To discuss this topic further, you can reach me at 215.568.8363 or

Michelle Fisk, Principal