How much thought have you given to reviewing job prospects’ references? Conducting a reference check is a skill in its own right, requiring sensitivity and instincts for weeding out valuable input from generalized responses. The latter is presumably positive — after all, candidates choose the references themselves.
A worthwhile conversation
References serve several functions. The straightforward process depends on asking the right questions. An interviewer can often judge, according to how the reference responds, whether the candidate is respected. Is the candidate regarded as an outstanding worker or are they more run of the mill?
First, the reference should validate key facts provided in a candidate’s application. Second, they may be able to expand superficial information into a deeper view of a candidate’s knowledge, skills and personality. Third, their answers may signal discrepancies in the application, like factual inconsistencies.
A hiring manager must sometimes use a sixth sense to decide whether a potentially promising candidate will fit in with the culture of the organization and the team. A third party can provide useful clues as to the candidate’s performance and behavior as well as impressions of their work ethic or response to challenges.
As an additional layer of background checks, employers and HR personnel use references to verify experience and credentials. The checks can add extra value for employers by reducing the risk of careless or negligent hiring. It’s important to know that people who provide references are protected in some states for disclosing employee information. Otherwise, references might be wary of the legal consequences arising from failing to reveal enough relevant information or overdoing it with an excessively harsh review.
Framing the questions
Prepare your questions for references in advance, obtaining input from other team members who have been involved in the hiring process. By starting the process prepared, you will find it easier to stay on track as well as finesse compliance issues. Try to avoid yes-or-no questions, which are unlikely to add much useful material. Where feasible, ask all references the same questions.
Above all, stay well away from discriminatory or illegal topics, including age, family, religion, country of origin, health, disability, finances or credit history. In fact, try to generally steer clear of all questions unrelated to the job at hand.
Here are some suggested questions for references:
- How did you interact with the candidate in terms of your own role?
- Did you see the candidate perform or show any marked accomplishments?
- Can you suggest a couple of areas for growth? (A diplomatic way of saying weaknesses.)
- Have you observed any negative behaviors that affected performance (e.g., lateness, missed deadlines)?
- What is the candidate’s working style (e.g., solitary, collaborative, creative, detail-oriented)?
- When exactly did you work with the candidate?
- Why did the candidate leave?
- Why would or wouldn’t you recommend the candidate?
- Can you give an example of how the candidate responded to a stressful situation?
- How did the candidate manage team conflict?
- Would you rehire the candidate?
- Can you tell me something positive the candidate may not have already mentioned (e.g., volunteer work or hobbies)?
A chance to enhance
Conduct reference reviews productively, staying mindful of everyone’s time. Before you start, make sure to notify candidates in the initial job posting that references will be required and obtain their explicit consent, as some applicants see the process as invasive. Then wait for all your hiring feedback before talking to the references, at least one of whom should be a former manager.
Most discussions take place briefly by phone, which is more conducive to candid responses. Fifteen minutes is typical. If the candidate will be reporting directly to you, do not delegate. You understand the position thoroughly and can best establish rapport with the references.
Look out for red flags, such as inordinate praise. And if the candidate says not to call someone they have listed, or provides the wrong phone number, you need to explore that—don’t just let it go. Nevertheless, don’t assume the worst—give the candidate a chance to explain.