What Do You Ask in a Reference Check?

May 26 2017

private investigatorWhen you’re Ready-to-Hire, it can be tempting to skip steps when you need help fast. Don’t fall prey to this! One of the most valuable pre-hire tools is a comprehensive reference check that covers everything from technical skills, to attendance and leadership potential. The importance of extracting key information and details during a reference check is critical. You’ll also notice clues that help you evaluate the level of value you can place on the person providing the reference. Some companies will only confirm if the person worked for them, but there is no harm in trying to get more information. Here are our best reference questions and strategies:

1. How long have you known Jane, and in what relationship?
If the reference giver hasn’t known Jane very long (less than a year), this could be a red flag. Similarly, if the reference giver hasn’t worked with Jane directly, this is also a red flag. What does it say about Jane’s judgement that she would select someone who can’t speak much to the key questions you’re going to ask?

2. What was Jane’s job title? What were her main responsibilities when you worked together?
You should already know the answer to this question, so this is an opportunity to validate the skills and experience on Jane’s resume. If you hear a different job title or responsibilities that don’t align with your job and expectations, a potential problem is brewing.

3. How did Jane interact with her manager and co-workers? What is she like to work with?
It’s common to ask, “Did Jane get along well with her manager and co-workers?” The problem is—you’ll usually get limited information in the form of “Yes” a “No” response. You don’t just want to know if Jane got along well with people, you want to know how she engaged with them and what she was like to work with. 

4. Did Jane enjoy working more alone, or in a group?
This question helps you determine whether Jane is going to be a culture fit, based on your environment. It also helps you figure out if the impression you got from Jane during her interviews was accurate.

5. When working in a group, did Jane prefer to lead or follow?
Are you looking for a leader or a follower? Job seekers tend to think that employers only want to hire leaders, but this isn’t true. If you hire a team full of people who want to lead, you’ll have a hard time delegating and you’ll see more conflict. A balanced team is comprised of leaders and followers—ideas people and results people. Know whether you need Jane to be a leader or a follower, and make sure the information you receive aligns. 

6. Did Jane suggest new approaches, or was she more inclined to follow established procedures?
Are you looking for a visionary or are you looking for someone to follow a defined process? If you need someone to drive change, look for a response that supports this. If your business is bound by defined rules and processes, and you want someone who isn’t going to question that, this is valuable information to have up-front.

7. What kind of supervision did Jane require?
How much time do you have to manage Jane? Is her work style going to fit in with your management style? Be wary of references that indicate your candidate requires a lot of management.

8. How would you describe Jane’s attendance? Do you recall any regular issues?
If you hear any feedback about frequent sick days, regular call outs for personal reasons, or any drama around attendance and punctuality—this is a red flag.

9. Why was she looking to leave?
This question typically yields the most interesting and varied responses. The goal is to make sure the reason Jane gives aligns with the reason the reference gives.

10. What haven’t I asked you about Jane that you think would be important to know about her?
Responses to this question will vary. We’ve heard everything from a candidate being an amazing baker to a candidate being extremely sensitive and prone to crying. Regardless, you’ll learn a variety of interesting and useful information with this question.

Your candidate has intentionally provided you with references who will likely say flattering things, but you always have an option to do what is referred to as a “back door reference” where you reach out to other people who worked with your applicant and ask for their impression. LinkedIn is a good way to locate other professionals who have worked at the same company and would be less biased. This should be done with caution though, if your candidate is conducting an anonymous job search.

Happy Reference Checking!


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