Reference Checking, Anyone?

by Steve Mandell
Head of School
Pinewood Preparatory School

With the hiring season coming to a close, I am reflecting on a critical and often missed step in hiring – reference checking. Without treating this element deliberately, how else can we meet our ultimate responsibility as school leaders to hire the best faculty in creating a safe and positive place for living and learning? References are not boxes to check, but an important data element in the hiring process.

Does that mean that a school may miss out on a potentially fantastic person if they move too slowly? Sure. It also means that we have exhausted every opportunity to hire the “right” person, fulfilling our number one obligation to our students, families, and school.

While this process may seem cumbersome when competing for strong teaching candidates, it does help to round out a profile of the person you are about to put in a classroom with children. Some key points to consider are:

  • Neutral is a bad sign, period. References are not about employment or education verification. That is a different step if your school requires it. Neutral references may help the former employer, but are of little or no use to you when hiring.
  • Letters are a snap-shot, at best, so speak with a live voice if at all possible. People will share beyond the written word and give you better intel than included in a stale letter of recommendation.
  • Talk with the right person or don’t hire the candidate. I have learned as a school head to never hire without speaking with my opposite number at their current school. There are some red flags when a prospective teacher hedges at this request that could include a problem or the candidate actually being under contract.
  • Structured, deliberate conversations are important. Go into these reference conversations with a plan. Just like a good interview with the candidate, a strong series of questions can make a difference in the quality of information.

On the last point, there is some super information to borrow if you need ideas about questions. One excellent resource is David E. Edell, President of DRG, which is a national executive recruitment firm working exclusively within the nonprofit sector. On his company website, Mr. Edell shares his top ten critical questions to ask when checking references. I have included two of my favorites below.

Is this person a team player or does he or she excel by working alone?

“Determine, based on your assessment of the job, whether an interactive or independent work style is important for success — and regardless of the answer, probe to determine whether the candidate demonstrated respect for other employees’ contributions and a willingness to consider others’ opinions.”

An important element in defining teacher excellence is congruence with mission and strategic goals. Are you about to hire someone that while educated, energizing, and entertaining, does not embrace the same beliefs and philosophy as the school and teaching faculty?

What areas of development were communicated to the candidate and how did he or she respond?

“This question is a good way to get information regarding performance weaknesses that may not have otherwise been volunteered by the reference. Listen carefully as the reference describes how the candidate responded to performance improvement needs and direction.”

If your school fully embraces continuous improvement for all employees, knowing what to focus on with a new employee is an added benefit. This question is not only critical to see if there is an important disconnect, but can be a tremendous springboard for a powerful transition for the new teacher or staff member. People want to be embraced and nourished.

Lastly, let’s not forget the legal side if something goes wrong. Getting “real” references on new employees is a critical step before you hire. I would encourage all school leaders to put the written testimonies aside and dig a little deeper. You have two choices when checking references and I would encourage you to embrace the words of Robert Frost in taking the road that seems to be less traveled as it will make all the difference.

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