5 Questions You Should be Asking References

Whether you’re looking 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 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 being honest about his/her skills, employment record and qualifications is to verify them personally.

What should you even be asking 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?

To help answer these questions and to simplify the reference-checking process, here’s a look at five specific questions you should be asking:

1. What responsibilities did the candidate have while working with you? This is a pretty basic question that allows you to gain objective information on what work the candidate has done elsewhere. Did a previous job involve the same responsibilities as the one you’re looking to hire for does? Or did this previous job involve a completely different set of skills? Does this reference give you confidence that the candidate can fulfill responsibilities in the role you’re hiring for or not?

2. What were the candidate’s strengths as an employee? This question gives the reference a chance to sing the candidate’s praises, something most references will be prepared to do, particularly if the candidate has warned him/her that you would call.

3. What were some areas of development communicated to the candidate, and how did he/she respond to them? You don’t only want to know about strengths, but you also want to be aware of weaknesses — a harder bit of information to glean in a quick reference check. Here’s 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.”

4. Can you tell me about the candidate’s tenure with your company — did he/she receive any raises, promotions, demotions, etc? What was his/her salary when hired? Why did he/she leave? While this question is fairly objective as well, it will give you valuable insight on the details of the candidate’s former work. Advancements and raises show you that he/she 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 being fired or asked to leave, if applicable.

5. 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 “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 also it will 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, giving the reference a chance to fill the gaps with other pertinent details.

In addition to the questions above, be sure to pay attention to subtext in the conversation — how the person pauses, hesitates or has a hard time answering a specific question. Some references will be reluctant to relay bad information about a candidate, but by carefully listening to verbal hints, you can gain valuable clues that there’s a potential issue.