Checking References: Top 10 Questions to Ask

Checking References: Top 10 Questions to Ask

by Jennifer Sievers, Director of Client Services, Acclivity Healthcare

No matter how carefully you construct your job interview questions, you’ll always be left with a desire to know more about a candidate than you were able to ask. Since the applicant is striving to convey only positive impressions, it’s a challenge to find out whether there is any unspoken back story — or indeed, whether this candidate is truly a rare gem. Calling an applicant’s references gives you a chance to gain a more objective opinion, and to learn some background about the applicant in a relaxed conversation. Here are the top ten questions to ask when you’re contacting employment references:

  1. Basic verifications: This is a routine set of questions that simply verify the facts that the applicant supplied. These questions include: dates of employment, job title, job duties, reason for leaving, and relationship of the applicant to the person you’re talking with.
  2. Did they receive any promotions or special recognition during the time they worked with you? While the applicant most likely mentioned these on their resume, this question allows you to determine how significant a promotion actually was. If the person was never promoted, you can discover whether that was due to lackluster performance or to the simple fact that promotions were not available.
  3. What is their greatest workplace strength? This performance-related question gives the reference a chance to describe the candidate’s unique abilities.
  4. In which areas does the candidate still need development? Some references are reluctant to say anything the least bit negative, but an inquiry that’s phrased in a positive way can sometimes overcome this reserve.
  5. Can you tell me about their interpersonal skills? Unless the job involves only solitary work, this is an important element in evaluating performance. Also, this question opens the door to the reference being able to tactfully imply any personal difficulties they had with the candidate.
  6. Were there any issues with tardiness or absenteeism? This is a question that’s often overlooked, but it has significant bearing on a candidate’s viability.
  7. How would you describe their performance regarding (fill in the blank)? What you ask here depends on the type of job you’re filling. You may want to ask how well the candidate performs under pressure, how good they are at soothing upset customers, or how accurately they measure and record data.
  8. How well does the candidate respond to supervision, or the absence of supervision? Depending on the position you’re interviewing for, you may be looking for someone who is very self-directed, or you may need someone who responds accurately to very close direction.
  9. Is the candidate eligible for rehire? This is a good way of clarifying the circumstances of the candidate’s departure from a previous position.
  10. Is there anything else you think I should know about this candidate? This is the classic closing question, allowing the reference to bring in anything that might have been omitted in the conversation.

Try to call references during a part of the day in which both of you have time to speak without feeling rushed. Legal departments sometimes warn employers to avoid giving negative references, but if you’re alert you can catch the unspoken subtext — even if it’s not spelled out. Handled properly, reference calls are rich sources of background information, providing you with objective evidence that you’re hiring the right person.