5 Questions You Need to Ask References about Job Candidates

Ask Questions That Will Confirm Your Candidate's Integrity

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Whether you want to hire a new company executive or a new personal assistant, finding the right candidate for the job isn't always easy. After you’ve waded through all of the applications and resumes, you still have to interview a range of individuals, and then reach out to references to determine who is best qualified and who is the right fit for the job.

If you’re tempted to skip calling references altogether, don’t make that mistake.

The best way to find out if a candidate is honest about his or her skills, employment record, and qualifications is to verify them personally.

What should you ask when you call references? What questions will give you the best insight into a potential candidate’s dependability and skills? How do you make the most of reference checks?

Five Questions to Ask as You Check References

To help answer these questions and to simplify the reference-checking process, here are five specific questions you need to ask.

What responsibilities did the candidate have while working with you? This is a basic question that allows you to gain objective information on the work the candidate has done elsewhere.

Did a previous job involve the same responsibilities as the one for which you’re hiring? (Some research indicates that potentially, your most successful hires are people who did a very similar job successfully for another employer.)

Or did this previous job involve a completely different set of skills? Does this reference give you confidence that the candidate can fulfill the responsibilities of the role for which you’re hiring or not?

What were the candidate’s strengths as an employee? This question gives the reference a chance to sing the candidate’s praise, something most references are prepared to do, particularly if the candidate has warned the reference that you will call.

What were the areas in need of development that were communicated to the candidate, and how did he or she respond to them? You don’t only want to know about strengths, but you also want to know the candidate’s weaknesses – information that is harder to glean in a quick reference check.

This is a question that allows you to fish for more information. According to Miriam W. Berger at national executive recruitment firm DRG, “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.”

Can you tell me about the candidate’s tenure with your company — did he or she receive any raises, promotions, demotions, and so forth? What was his or her salary when hired? Why did he or she leave? While this question is fairly objective as well, it will give you valuable intel on the details of the candidate’s former work.

Advancements and raises show you that the candidate was moving forward and growing. Demotions may reveal problems you won’t want to deal with in your own business.

Likewise, discovering why the candidate left a previous role lets you know upfront about potential character issues relating to the candidate’s being fired or asked to leave a job, if applicable.

Is there anything else I should know before hiring this candidate? Whenever “you've made a connection with a reference who is willing to talk with you, make the most of your good fortune by asking open-ended questions that call for in-depth answers,” says HCareers.com.

“Within reason, give the reference ample opportunity to answer as comprehensively as they are willing to.” Not only will giving the person a little extra time and opportunity to give you feedback help you gain more information, but it will also round out the perspective you’re able to have about the candidate.

Always conclude your conversation by asking if there’s anything else you should know. Give the reference a chance to fill in the gaps with other pertinent details.

In addition to the questions above, pay attention to subtext in the conversation - how the person pauses, hesitates or has a hard time answering a specific question.

Some references are reluctant to relay bad or negative information about a candidate, but by carefully listening to verbal hints, you can gain valuable clues that the candidate has a potential issue that you will need to address when you have hired the candidate.