Direct Reports: The Reference Checkpoint You May Be Missing

By Eve Glicksman January 29, 2021

​"Pay attention to how your date treats the waitperson." That's common advice given to people for assessing how their date may treat them one day.

Likewise, a job candidate's relationships with direct reports can reveal important clues about his or her character and management style. Talking to a direct report gives you "a ground-level view" about how candidates interact with people below them on the ladder, said Benjamin Farber, president of Bristol Associates Inc., an executive search firm in Los Angeles.

The logic is the same as that behind the 360-degree performance evaluation. From a boss, you find out how a candidate relates to his or her superiors. "From direct reports, you can learn more about [the candidate's] day-to-day behavior from people who experienced it the most," said Jacqui Maguire, senior director of talent advisory at Greenhouse Software in New York City.  

10 Questions to Ask a Direct Report

  1. Describe the candidate's management style and what you appreciated most as an employee. How could he/she have better managed you and co-workers?
  2. Does the candidate inspire and energize others? How?
  3. Did the candidate help you to grow and learn?
  4. Is the candidate respectful of people working under him/her? Provide an example.
  5. What ways does the candidate demonstrate that he or she listens?
  6. Have you seen the candidate delegate important tasks to others when appropriate?
  7. How often does he or she update the team about the business and how?
  8. How does the candidate handle stress, conflict and pressure?
  9. What qualities about the candidate make him/her a great leader? Any qualities that don't?
  10. Compared to other managers you've had, how would you rank this person as a manager?

It's knowledge about a candidate you can't replace, echoed Caitlyn Metteer, a recruiting manager for Lever, a software recruiting company in San Francisco. "By interviewing direct reports, you can really understand how the manager makes the employee feel." Did the direct report feel supported? Did the manager check in to see how they were doing?

Not taking the perspective of subordinates into account can result in a hire who can't lead a team, causes massive attrition and has a negative impact on the business, Metteer stressed. She added that it's particularly crucial during the uncertain times of a pandemic to hire managers who are supportive of employees.

"Ask a direct report about the candidate's leadership style, what they are like during stressful times and how they communicate," said Chandler McCoy, founding partner and president, M&A Executive Search in Minneapolis.  "You're looking for a good leader, coach and mentor. Someone who stays in touch even when people are working remotely."

McCoy also asks direct reports whether the manager ever shared information about the business with members of the team. "You want someone who involves [employees] in the broader organization," he said. "It's an indicator of a good leader to share insights and show people how they make an impact on the business." 

Talking to a direct report is a great opportunity if you're sitting on the fence about a candidate or if there are gaps and gray areas, Maguire added. "Go into the reference check looking to validate a specific attribute—not to look for a flaw or just to check a box." Through deliberate and meaningful questions, you can obtain examples that may allow you to move forward more confidently with a hire, she said.

A subordinate may be more hesitant or intimidated than a higher-level professional during an interview, so making the reference feel comfortable is essential, McCoy noted. Share that you are looking for a good fit and that you are not digging for dirt, he suggested. "The more rapport you can build, the more insight you will get."

Instead of asking forthright about a candidate's weaknesses, Metteer asks how the manager could be supported in a new role and if there are blind spots they may need help with.

Farber looks for examples of where the direct report's feedback or opinion was valued or when the manager gave the employee credit for an accomplishment. "The best comment is when they say they would work again with this person in a heartbeat," Farber said.

Best Practices

The standard recommendation when hiring at the director level or above is to ask for three references—a candidate's former boss, a peer and a subordinate. But should you only contact references provided or go "off list"? It's a given that candidates will select references who will praise them.

Another approach is to ask candidates to provide nine references: three bosses, three peers, three direct reports. The hiring manager doesn't need to call all nine, but the list is no longer limited to the candidate's three top allies.

Farber only goes searching through back channels for references if a candidate's reference list is irrelevant or the references don't respond. But he says any references a candidate provides can be revealing. "Who they choose to share or who they omit provides us with insightful information. It's a red flag if a candidate can't provide a reference at each level," he said.

Maguire leans away from backdoor references because she is concerned about building trust with the candidate.

Metteer agreed.  "Back channels are problematic because you risk turning the candidate off. Personally, I don't think it's worth the risk. A reference is just one data point."

Chandler, however, recommended that hiring managers ask for references and go through the backdoor confidentially. The easiest and quickest way to back-channel is through LinkedIn or social media, he noted. Professional associations and databases can be helpful, too. "Get a recent reference," he added. "People grow and change."

Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.



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