Why You Should Be Checking a Job Candidate’s References … and What to Ask

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Hiring decisions are risky. Anyone who’s done any hiring knows this … and probably has had at least one bad hire.

Resumes, interviews and work samples all help you compare job candidates and make judgements. But what about references? How valid is it to actually speak with someone your job candidate has handpicked? What should you really be asking these individuals to help you fill in the gaps? And what are the legal ramifications for you and the former employer?

Why you should be checking references

If you think calling references is a waste of time or don’t do it because your organization does background checks instead (to verify work history), think again. Checking in with references is an opportunity for you to confirm that your job candidate can do the work he or she claims, suggests monster.com. It’s an opportunity for you to fill in the gaps, find out what this person is really like, their attitude, work style and how they work with others—things you wouldn’t find on a resume.

What to ask a job candidate’s references

But there are tricks to getting the information you need. Listening carefully to what the person says, how they say it and what they don’t say is critical to accurately interpreting a reference’s comments.

It’s also critical to know what to ask and how. You’re looking for information about the job candidate’s interpersonal skills, so you can decrease your risk of a bad hire. In order to do that, you should first consider what remaining questions you have and what interpersonal skills you’re looking for, i.e., what traits are linked with excelling in the job. (It’s important to note, that those traits aren’t necessarily the same traits as everyone else already working for you. You’re not trying to find out if you’ll like someone’s personality. And it’s important that a group not be too homogenous as this leads to groupthinkstifling ideas and creativity.)

Experts agree that open-ended questions are best. Categorize your questions into three basic types, suggests proven.comintroductory, skill assessment and fit. Here are some suggestions:

  1. What is your relationship with the candidate? This question, suggested by entrepreneur.com, enables you to find out if the reference has actually worked closely with the candidate.
  2. Confirm the details: Dates of employment, job title, responsibilities, salary
  3. How long did you work with the candidate?
  4. What were the candidate’s job responsibilities?
  5. Describe the work performance
  6. Accountability. How well did the person meet deadlines? How did they react if they made a mistake?
    • “This position includes a lot of tight deadlines. How well did ____ meet the deadlines in her position with your firm?”
  7. Ask about strengths and weaknesses.
  8. What’s it like to work with this person? This question will help you find out personality, communication skills, how well he or she takes direction and works with a team. “It’s hard to get a sense in one short interview, of what it might be like to work with someone. Can you tell me about the work relationships ____ had at your organization?”
  9. Why did he or she leave?
  10. Anything else I should consider about this person?
  11. Candidate’s advancement in the company. Promotions?
  12. If specific talents or personality features are required for the job, ask the reference about those details.
    • “This position will take a great deal of organization and independent work, do you think ______ would be successful in handling that? Which qualities make you feel this way?”
    • “The person in this role will need to develop warm relationships quickly with a variety of challenging personalities. Can you tell me about times you’ve seen ______ do this?”
  13. Would you rehire the candidate? Why or why not.

What are the legal concerns in checking references?

Wondering if a former employer would withhold negative information to stay out of legal hot water? Some states do regulate what an employer can say about a former employee when providing a reference to a prospective employer. But 40 others give employers immunity, protecting employers from civil liability by giving good faith references with truthful information. And only providing names, dates of employment and positive comments doesn’t eliminate legal risk. Not disclosing complete information can be just as risky from a legal standpoint. But, keep in mind, in the event of a lawsuit, “a candidate or employer needs to prove not just harm but also malicious and dishonest intent—which is a very high bar,” suggests outmatch.com.  Be familiar with the laws in your area. 

Many organizations hesitate to check references. After all, why would a job applicant include business references that might be bad? But the trick is in the way you treat these conversations and the questions you ask. Listen carefully to the answers … to what’s being said and what’s not being said.

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Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.