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Aug 1, 2009 | Cindy McGeever lock

Knowing what reference questions to ask your prospective new hire is critical if you are going to get truthful information on a candidate's prior job performance.

We all know that candidate's include people on their reference list who are going to say nice things about them. Make sure that you are talking to a cross section of people from the candidate's past, and that there are at least a few people on the reference list that are reasonably current.

If a candidate is unemployed, their former boss should definitely be on the list. If not, ask probing questions to find out why!

How to Conduct a Reference Check

I almost never speak to a referee on the first phone call, although I am prepared to do so if it's suggested. A reference check should take more than a few minutes. I ask a referee for at least twenty minutes of their time, and am happy to schedule that. I want the referee's full attention.

Have your reference questions typed out and in front of you. Be familiar with the areas you want to explore, so you can weave your questions into a conversation, rather than asking them in the order in which you've written them. A conversational style will yield better results.

Avoid "yes or no" questions. Instead of asking "Was Jim good at his job?", ask a question that will yield more information: "Tell me some recent wins that Jim had as Director of Sales."

The real key to conducting an effective reference check is in the ability to probe for more information. Ask things like:

How did he do that?

Keep in mind that referees provided by the candidate are not willingly going to provide negative information. This is not a "gotcha" exercise...instead, you're looking for actionable information that gives insight into how to manage this candidate should you hire him/her, what some of their key strengths and weaknesses might be. Everyone has developmental issues. Your objective is to find out what your candidate's are and make sure that they are aligned in a way that will allow the candidate to be successful in the role you're trying to fill.

Use these reference questions as a guide as you check your candidates' references. Add questions of your own to check on areas that are critical to success in your own organization. Before we get started, just a couple of quick thoughts to set the stage:

Introductory Comments

While not a question, start your call by verifying the current company and title of the referee. If the referee has taken on a new role since working with the candidate, verify their position at the time they were working with the candidate. It's important to set the context for the information you're going to receive.

You also want to find out how much the candidate has told their reference about the opportunity with your organization. If the candidate has not shared much, I will provide a very brief overview of the position the candidate is being considered for, including scope of responsibility. This helps set the context for the referee.

We'll check references for Joe, a fictional candidate who is applying for a senior level sales position with ABC Widget Company.

  • How long have you known Joe?
  • What were some of Joe's major responsibilities when you worked together?
  • What were Joe's most significant accomplishments at XYZ Manufacturing?
  • Tell me about a difficult personnel situation that Joe managed through.
  • How would you rate Joe on follow through? Attention to detail?
  • What do you think drives Joe?
  • If we were to consider Joe for even broader responsibilities at ABC Widget, what type of professional development or coaching would be beneficial to Joe?
  • How would Joe's direct reports describe him?
  • What development areas did you and Joe agree to in his last performance review?

These reference questions will generate some good information, and will likely lead to a whole series of follow up questions for the referee. Try not to accept "canned" answers - for example, if the referee responds that Joe's direct reports love him, probe for more information. You might ask a follow-up like: Is Joe better at managing down than managing up? How?

The key to a successful reference check is not just asking a few reference questions. It's learning how to take the information you receive, and read between the lines, probe for more information, and get the referee talking candidly to you.

About the Author:

Cindy McGeever is a seasoned recruiter and the owner of a niche job board for sales professionals.

Reproduced with permission.

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