Tips to successful reference checking at the senior level

  • 01-05-18
  • Richard Lloyd

Reference checks are a critical part of any hiring process. However, when you’re recruiting accounting professionals in management and executive positions, there are extra considerations that should be taken into account due to the significance of their potential impact on your organisation.


As a preamble to carrying out background checks, it is essential to set some expectations from the outset to keep you on track for a successful hiring decision:


When it comes to hiring senior Accounting executives and managers, it’s vital to understand the candidate’s career in great detail, the strengths and weaknesses as well as the personal characteristics they’ve demonstrated over a long period of time. With more experience at interviewing and an increased level of confidence in their abilities, senior and executive level professionals can be highly persuasive in communicating their credentials, work performance and expertise, which often sees a much quicker hiring decision by the employer to make an offer. Being prepared to reevaluate based on a less-than-favourable reference will ensure you assess all options.


To find out whether the candidate - from general manager to chief executive officer - is the right person for the job takes time. The risk of mis-hiring at this level can have a major impact on the business and not just the financial cost. Not only is it a complex process to remove someone once they’ve been hired, the business’s culture, reputation and brand can also be damaged. Allocate the pertinent amount of time for research, preparing questions and finding more suitable individuals to call, typically up to ten hours. 


Going into a reference check with preconceived, only positive notions about the candidate and their job title, due to endorsements by colleagues or a board member, will close your mind to what the referee is saying. In other words, you will only hear what you want to – that you’ve found the perfect person. If your preferred candidate’s background checks are less than what you had hoped, then it’s critical to either find other ways to probe further or if you are unable to move past the feedback, you need to be prepared to remove them from the hiring process.  An incorrect match can have far-reaching consequences on the company and shareholders and quite simply, it isn’t worth the risk.


Traditionally the candidate will volunteer their referees, however, there is nothing wrong with requesting to speak to specific people. As a rule of thumb, at the executive level, it’s important to get at least three different perspectives.


Of course, your first port of call will be their direct manager. Although this is standard when reference checking, if you probe a little further you can discover a lot more about the candidate that can help you understand how to get the best out of them and figure out if they are the right match. For example, they can reveal how the candidate copes under pressure and where their strengths and weaknesses lie, giving you a good indication of how they may behave once on the job. This is the ideal person to uncover any ‘red flags’ about the candidate that may have arisen throughout the interview process.


Talking to a previous employee can also be quite insightful. They can help you understand what the candidate’s leadership style was like and what the team thought of them. Speaking to an employee also gives you an indication of the types of people the candidate likes to have in their team.


Whilst the above two referee sources are fairly standard, taking a reference from a peer or colleague with a leadership job title (such as a Sales Manager or someone else in the leadership team) can also be useful. As their relationship stems from being on par professionally, their perspective is totally different. Their views can shed some light on the candidate’s ability, work performance or approach when it comes to persuading and engaging various stakeholders or how they deal with in-house politics and other issues that arise – behaviours that others may not be aware of.


If you don’t understand the full picture for your chief executive officer or general manager, or you feel like it’s necessary for the role, you can also ask to speak to a vendor. While this might not be relevant for every role, vendors can give you an idea of how the candidate approaches different types of business relationships.


Because of the magnitude of these kinds of appointments, it’s important to ask difficult questions to ensure you get the full history of each candidate during your background check. When references start to reveal unexpected issues, some people find it uncomfortable to ask questions to delve deeper, but it’s key not to leave any stone unturned. At this level, we expect a detailed reference conversation can take a minimum of 30 to 45 minutes.

Here are examples of our favourite reference-checking questions for management positions:

  • When you think of Michelle, how would you describe her overall? How would Michelle’s team describe her? What about her peers?
  • What would you say are her most impressive personal qualities?
  • What were her main achievements during this role?
  • How did Michelle ensure she achieved her results? Did she go over and above, and if so, what did she do?
  • Can you give me an example of a time that Michelle was able to demonstrate initiative?
  • How does she go about motivating her team or others around her?
  • Can you describe a time when she was responsible for growth and what role she played in this?
  • How well does she handle the pressure? Can you think of an example where she hasn’t coped so well?
  • Where are her areas of development? Where do you see her in five years’ time?
  • From what we’ve seen and heard, Michelle seems like the best candidate for the job, but everyone has areas to improve upon. Can you explain any setbacks she has had and how you managed them?
  • If you were hiring Michelle for [this particular role], what aspects of the job do you think should change to ensure it’s even more suited to her skills and abilities?
  • Why did she leave your company?
  • Would you hire Michelle again, and if so, in what capacity?
  • Would you say she had a lasting impact on the organisation or her staff? What were they?
  • If Michelle takes this position, how is she best managed to bring the best out of her?
  • What other questions have I not asked you that I should?


Thorough reference checks are an absolute necessity when recruiting for Accounting executive and management positions. Scenarios, where this hasn’t occurred, are regularly highlighted as high-profile failures across all types of businesses. To ensure your business sets itself up for success, don’t skimp on the time needed to complete a comprehensive reference and where something doesn’t add up, further investigation should be a priority.

As your executive Accounting recruitment partner, we aim to carry out extensive reference checks on all of the candidates we represent to you and your business. However, if you would like us to ask or probe anything specific we’re always happy to do so.

Follow us on LinkedIn for more recruitment tips and insights.