I had left the reference checking to the Human Resources Generalist/Assistant. She did the background check but never followed through with any reference checking. I took it for granted that since his background check had come back ‘clean’, all was well. It wasn’t for a few weeks and a few ‘well experienced’ observations later that I learned reference checking had never been completed….at all. With all my years of HR experience (nearly 35, at this point in time), I never thought to ask the HR Assistant/Generalist if she had completed the reference checking until my observations made it clear that there was a ‘minor’ albeit ‘obvious’ disconnect in front of me….
I then took it upon myself to do some reference checking after the fact. Not much, but enough to recognize that I would have recommended the hiring client offer the candidate an HR Manager title and about 15% less annual dollars. The candidate’s experience did/does not warrant a higher title nor the amount of remuneration he was offered. But, I believe the ‘employee’ will eventually grow into the job with proper direction but it taught me a valuable lesson: One has to follow through on all tasks given to subordinates, even if it is to confirm that the task has been completed.
Checking references is one of only a few ways to ensure that a candidate can deliver on their promises, have the experience you require and will be a good cultural fit. If you don’t do this, you may risk making a bad hire which can costs thousands of dollars…following is a guide on the best questions to ask references.
I want to put the questions for reference checking into three (3) categories: introductory, skill assessment and fit (culture). The following are a sample of questions to utilize for each category; you do not have to use all of them but a few from each category will do.
***What is your relationship to the candidate? This is a simple question but you need to know who you are talking to and what relationship they have with your potential hire.
***How long have (did) you work(ed) with candidate? This helps you understand how well the reference knows the candidate.
***What were some of the candidate’s responsibilities? This question will help you compare what the candidate has told you about their responsibilities and what their reference things their responsibilities are.
Skill Assessment Questions
***What are some of the candidate’s strengths? This is an opportunity for you to compare your perceived strengths from your interviews with the candidate what their reference believes to be their strengths.
***What are some of the candidate’s weaknesses? Everyone has weaknesses; some are more damning than others.
***Do you believe the candidate can overcome their weaknesses within the first 90 days and with training? This is a good follow up if the weaknesses discussed are skill-speific versus something behavioral. It is also an opportunity for you to dive into how trainable the candidate is and what experience their reference has had with training the candidate.
***Did the candidate receive any promotions while with your company? Why or why not? This helps establish context for their employment. If they were passed for promotion, why was that? Does it matter for the position for which you are hiring? If they were promoted, then that is a good thing to learn to help inform your hiring decision but always ask the circumstances for the promotion.
***Does the candidate have good listening and communication skills? Make sure you dive into specifics with this question. Anyone can give a quick “yes”, but try to ask follow-ups where the reference gives you examples of the candidate successfully applying these skills.
***Did the candidate mainly work independently or with a group of people? If they primarily worked independently, then you should follow up with questions focused on how well they are with being self-directed. Do they need a lot of managing and direction? If they worked in a group, make sure you ask how they performed while working with others. Did they take the lead? What was their role in the group?
***Was the candidate a valuable member of your company? Again, do not accept a simple ‘yes’ answer to this question. Instead, dive deeper and find out why they were valuable.
***Why did the candidate leave the position? If they candidate was a great employee, why did they leave? Was it on good terms? Make sure it is in line with whatever the candidate told you during the interview.
Assessing the ‘Fit’
***Do you think the candidate is qualified for this job? Why or why not? This is an opportunity for you to get a third party’s perspective on the candidate’s potential skill match for the position you are hiring.
***How would you rate the candidate’s overall performance for a scale of 1 to 10? With this question, anything under a 9 should raise concern.
***Why should I hire this candidate? A good reference that really believes in the qualities of the candidate is going to want to sell you on hiring this person. This is their opportunity to do so.
***All things aside, would you rehire this candidate if you could? The final question. This is an important one and you should weigh the reference’s response with everything else they have told you. This ultimately will help you answer the most critical question of all, should I hire this candidate?
Taking the time to follow up on business references is a great way to get another person’s perspective on a candidate. Previously I thought that checking references wasn’t worth it for who is going to put a ‘bad’ reference on their ‘list’. However, one can get around that by being creative and attempting to speak directly to a former supervisor or manager, if that person was not one identified. You would be surprised what you can learn and what references candidates will actually include.
Please remember to probe beyond simple affirmative answers and try to get the reference to give concrete examples from their experience working with the candidate. If you need help in obtaining references for potential employees or would like some ‘coaching’ along the way, please contact Rosanne Bennett at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 484-718-3427.