My Favorite Reference Question

Save time by asking this question!

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Two years ago, I was working with the board search committee of a great nonprofit. Their search was for one of their most senior positions, and early on we had a meeting to calibrate the interview questions that would be asked at every stage. When we discussed the reference questions, we all suggested the questions that we think are the most effective and they were the usual queries that we all expect. Then, it happened: someone proposed the question that makes the sun shine brighter and rainbows appear. Okay, maybe not THAT extreme, still, after two decades in recruiting and human resources, this was the question that made me sit up and take notice. Ready for it?

If we were to hire Jane, what advice would you give to her future manager at The Best Nonprofit to ensure that she would hit the ground running and be set up for success?

Since hearing this question, I’ve probably posed it to about 60 people during reference calls. Everyone has answered it in a frank, forthright manner. It makes those walls come down, because we humans tend to love being asked for advice, and giving advice feels different than giving a reference. After all, companies often forbid giving reference, or people fear saying something that could be construed as negative or even slanderous. It gives you a deeper insight — more than simply than asking what their strength or weakness is — as the referrer is really sharing what makes the candidate tick, what motivates them, what scares them, and how to best communicate with them. More often than not, the person giving the reference will ask if THEY can use this question in the future, because they see how effective it is.

Try it for yourself the next time you have an important hire. You will be thrilled at the quality of the responses!

Cindy Joyce is the CEO of Pillar Search & HR Consulting. With over 20 years of experience, Pillar provides national retained search services for exceptional non-profits and foundations and early-stage or rapid growth for-profit firms. All share the characteristic of desiring top talent who want an occupassion, not just an occupation. In addition, Pillar offers human resources consulting services, which was born of clients requesting help on projects beyond executive search, and includes leadership coaching, assessing organizational design, training, team building, and employee communications. A woman-owned business, Pillar is based in Boston, MA, and works on both a local and national level. For more information, please visit

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