Body Language Speaks Louder Than Words Hire smart by looking past what references say about former employees and finding out what they mean.

By Paige Arnof-Fenn

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Nonverbal cues can often tell you more about a person than what that person spells out in an e-mail or conversation. One area where this comes up for many entrepreneurs is in hiring. When you ask most CEOs or business owners what keeps them up at night, it's either that they don't have enough good employees to grow or the ones they have are driving them crazy.

Finding great talent is one of the toughest things I've had to deal with as an entrepreneur. If your business is growing quickly, you may find that everyone's skills aren't growing accordingly and your early resources have hit their threshold. Bringing on new talent takes time and you want to make sure you're constantly upgrading with every new hire.

Whether you're looking for full-time or contract help, the informal reference check is one of the best ways to get honest feedback when making a hiring decision. Everyone has one old colleague from a prior job who can vouch for them. And with a little social networking, you can find others who have also worked with the candidate. Sites such as LinkedIn let you search for common connections. However, sometimes the person sending in a reference is a relative or friend, so the testimonial may not be truly objective about the person's work habits.

Do your homework and check the back channel for relevant information. When you're calling references and you hear a pause or hesitation in the voice, they may be trying to tell you something. If a previous employer can only confirm that your candidate worked for her, but offers nothing else, that should be a clue that there were potentially some issues. Or if someone doesn't sound genuinely excited about a candidate, take note and pay attention.

What can you do to find out more about potential hires?

  • Ask the right people. Check with the back channel, not just the formal references or customers on a resume.
  • Use social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Spoke, Ryze and Xing to leverage your network and stay connected to colleagues. They can be a great source of information and referrals.
  • Frame the questions well. Ask about specific areas of interest or concern but also leave room for some open-ended feedback. Avoid yes or no questions except for confirming basic data.
  • Listen for pauses. There may be some good off-the-record information hidden in the delayed response. Probe further to ensure you have the full story. When meetings are in person, listen with your, eyes too. Read the body language and messages being sent.

We are all in the communications business and it comes to person-to-person interactions. Asking the tough questions is not easy, but getting the right team assembled is critical to your success. I've been consistently upgrading my team as we grow and strongly recommend it for your sanity, peace of mind, and the health of your business.

Paige Arnof-Fenn is the founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a strategic-marketing consulting firm whose clients include Fortune 500 companies as well as early stage and emerging businesses.

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