What to Ask During a Reference Check

“Trust, but verify” is a time-tested and efficient means to do business. That holds particularly true with top candidates as they approach the stage of being hired

In our current job climate, candidates cast themselves in the best possible light to the largest group of likely employers. Consequently, resumes, LinkedIn profiles and even in-person interviews often lack the information employers need to feel 100% confident in a potential employee. And while some candidates are indeed trying to conceal wrongdoings, most have nothing to cover and are motivated by merely wanting to look good.

Reference checks are an important tool for recruiters to ensure they get the full story or authenticate that they already have it.

Usually, reference checks have two elements. The first involves verifying the accuracy of vital background information provided by the candidate: credentials, employment dates, job titles, duties, and most recent supervisors. The intention is to validate candidates are who they say they are — a fundamental foundation for being cleared for hire in any business.

The second involves filling in holes and obtaining richer information that was gathered during the interview process. You want to be convinced that a candidate is an excellent cultural fit, and their accomplishments indeed bode well for success in your company. Former colleagues and managers can offer objective insight about a candidate’s performance in various situations, how well they socialized with others, and their communication skills. A useful reference check usually provides qualitative information that expands on the quantitative information incorporated in the resume and interviews. Occasionally, a reference check will reveal past misbehavior that was not apparent prior.

Interviews, not interrogations

Most recruiters already have the skills in place to conduct reference checks.  But where they often blunder is in making things too complex.

The best way is to make the experience easy and pleasant for the references you are contacting. Keep the questions simple. Focus your efforts on keeping the conversation going. Revisit questions and encourage the reference to elaborate on earlier responses.

Here are three ways to make that conversation useful.

1 – Be exact

The reference check is no place for a fishing voyage. The purpose is to clear the candidate for hire and resolve any breaks or inconsistencies in the candidate’s past.

Determine which references you wish to speak with, and the precise information you want from them. Is it to support facts that are directly relevant to the job, fill in breaks that were not sufficiently addressed during the interviews, or confirm the candidate is who they say they are? Be sure you are contacting the appropriate persons who can answer these subjects.

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Focus your questions on if the candidate will do the job and is a fit for the job, not whether they can do the job.

Try to incorporate a standard set of questions or an interview format that facilitates fair, side-by-side comparisons between candidates.

2 – Get straight to the candidate’s achievements

A primary goal of the reference check is to get a third-party evaluation of the candidate’s accomplishments. One of the best ways to do this is by using open-ended, behavioral interviewing inquiries like the ones you used when interviewing the candidate. Another way is to modify the STAR interview technique, asking the reference about various challenges the candidate has faced, the actions taken, and the results obtained.

Follow up these behavioral interviewing type questions with general questions about communication, management, organizational, and especially people skills.

Ideally, your questions will obtain detailed, specific examples without a lot of thought on the part of the reference.

3 – Be devotedly professional and courteous

Seek to get the complete picture of the candidate, illustrated by precise examples that provide proof of what you need to make a confident hiring decision. Look for patterns rather than trying to fit a bunch of disjointed incidents into a story that might not exist.

Set a confident tone from the outset, and let the reference speak openly and without interruption. Dodge leading questions, negative language, or anything that will put the reference on the defensive. Don’t read too much into a situation where your mannerisms or communication style don’t mesh with the reference’s, or circumstances where a reference is reserved or unforthcoming. You may not have established trust or caught them at a good time. Finally, have the maturity to review inconsistencies before intensifying them.

The questions you need to be asking in a reference check

For all candidates, attempt to get three references, including the most recent supervisor, whose information will likely bear the most weight with the hiring team. In some instances, references may be authorized by their organizations to answer only standard questions, or you may be transferred to the HR department. When that happens, your purpose is to confirm the basics of the candidate’s background. Ask the following questions:

  • What were the candidate starting and separation dates?
  • What was the candidate’s ending salary?
  • What were the candidate’s most recent job titles, supervisors, and departments?
  • Is the candidate re-hirable by your organization?

Do not ask questions about the candidate’s job performance, probe beyond the answers you are given or ask the reference to make any judgment calls.

For references that can speak freely, the idea is to get a complete picture of the candidate and resolve any open mysteries.

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Keep the conversation rolling using these questions:

  • What was your relationship with the candidate?
  • How long was this working relationship?
  • What were the candidate’s job duties and performance objectives?
  • What was the candidate’s salary, including bonuses and performance incentives?
  • What unique skills, knowledge, competencies, and strengths did the candidate contribute to your organization?
  • What was their impact on the success of your organization?
  • What new skills, knowledge, and competencies did the candidate develop while working in your organization?
  • How successful was the candidate in their previous roles in your organization?
  • How did teammates and colleagues like working with the candidate?
  • What are some of the growth areas for the candidate? How did the candidate do in developing in these growth areas?
  • Was the candidate ever subject to disciplinary action? What were the circumstances and the outcome?
  • We are committed to helping the candidate succeed in their new role and grow in their career. What would you say the candidate needs most to be successful in their new position?
  • Would you and your colleagues want to work with the candidate again?
  • Is there anything else that would be worthwhile for us to know about the candidate?

If the reference is a former manager or supervisor of the candidate, be sure to ask these questions:

  • How large was the team that the candidate was a part of?
  • Is the candidate one of the top performers of the team?
  • What are the candidate’s most notable accomplishments in your organization?
  • Did the candidate receive any promotions or salary increases?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s communication skills? How does the candidate treat peers, senior management, clients, customers, partners, etc.?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s teamwork skills? Are they seen as a leader or a go-to person? How well do they take ownership of tasks, projects, and situations?
  • How does the candidate do with deliverables? Are they done on-time, and ready to use by the next person?
  • What are some of the growth areas for the candidate? How did the candidate do in developing in these growth areas?
  • Would you and your colleagues want to work with the candidate again? Would you want to supervise the candidate again?
  • What do you feel the candidate needs to be successful in their new role?
  • Is there anything else that would be worthwhile for us to know about the candidate?

.If you are looking to hire a new employee SurgeRecruiting offers an affordable recruiting service and includes phone interviews, reference checks, background reports, and sourcing.