When you're looking for a great candidate to fill an important role, it's easy to get swept up by a stellar application. But while a well-written resume filled with impressive accomplishments is certainly a promising sign, it's important to remember that it's just one factor. To really understand whether a candidate would be the right fit, it's always a good idea to talk to the people who know best: their references.
"It's important to speak with a candidate's references because often times, a resume doesn't paint the entire picture of a candidate's experience/background," says Jane Pesch, Senior Staffing Manager at recruiting firm WinterWyman. By speaking with a candidate's references, "hiring managers can learn about projects they assisted with, get a better idea of how they interact with team members and ask about intangible items like punctuality and ability to meet deadlines."
Best Practices to Keep in Mind When Contacting References
Before you grab your phone, though, there are a few things worth keeping in mind. First of all, it's a good idea to give the candidate at hand some visibility into how you conduct reference checks.
"I always ask the candidate if I may contact the reference and if they are aware I will be doing so," says Jeannette Seibly, founder of business advisory firm SeibCo and author of Hire Amazing Employees.
And while it may be tempting to perform a backchannel reference - i.e., reach out to somebody who you know has worked with a candidate but is not listed as an official reference - experts generally recommend against it.
"A reference really shouldn't be done without receiving consent from the candidate first. This source may not be a reliable representation of the candidate. It also doesn't help to foster or establish a sense of trust if the candidate is hired but then finds out that this reference was conducted unbeknownst to them," Pesch says.
Finally, make sure to provide enough context for the reference to be helpful.
"Clearly identify the role you are considering the candidate for so the reference contact can articulate strengths and weaknesses related to the role and position criteria," suggests Kim Brecheen, workforce development manager at American Fidelity Assurance Company.
And of course, avoid any discriminatory questions about a candidate's personal life, such as their age, familial status, religion, etc.
6 Reference Questions Worth Asking
So what exactly should you ask references? Here are some of the top suggestions experts shared.
1. How would you describe the candidate's reliability and dependability?
Recruiters often expect qualities like reliability, punctuality, self-motivation and the like to be givens in a candidate, not differentiators. But that doesn't mean you should simply assume that a candidate possesses these traits without checking first.
[Related: 11 Must-Ask Behavioral Interview Questions]
"This is key to finding out if the candidate is able to complete projects assigned, adhere to deadlines and arrive to work on time," shares Dana Case, Director of Operations at MyCorporation.com.
2. What are the candidate's strengths and weaknesses?
There's a good chance you'll ask the candidate what their strengths and weaknesses are during the interview itself, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't also ask their references. The similarity between the two responses can show you how self-aware a candidate is, and can also give you better insight into whether or not the candidate is a good match for your particular company and the role at hand.
In addition to asking about strengths and weaknesses generally, Seibly recommends going further to ask "why were these important in that work culture? What did [the candidate] do well? How did they handle mistakes?"
"Remember, no two companies are exactly the same... what was a problem in one company may not be an issue in another company," Seibly adds.
3. What was one of the candidate's most memorable accomplishments while working with you?
The difference between a good candidate and a great candidate can often be traced back to whether they regularly went above and beyond their everyday responsibilities - something this question does a great job of shedding light on.
"Ideally, the reference should be able to recall a time (or two) where the candidate took initiative on a project or displayed leadership skills that resulted in getting the job done and the outcome," Case says.
4. What type of work environment do you think the candidate would be most likely to thrive in, and why?
Remember: When you're interviewing a candidate, you're not just trying to figure out if they're the right person for your company. You also want to verify that your company is the right place for them. If your company isn't the sort of place where a candidate can thrive, they're much more likely to underperform or quit.
This question "will help you observe whether the candidate will function well in your work environment," says organizational consultant Laurie Richards.
If the reference describes an environment different than your own, it shouldn't necessarily be automatic grounds for dismissal - but it can "expose areas to explore further" with the candidate to verify that they are indeed eager to work at a company like yours, Richards says.
5. What skills would you have liked to see the candidate develop to reach their full potential?
Very rarely will you encounter a candidate who meets every one of your desired qualifications, but asking a question like this "will help identify voids in the candidate's skills," Richards says. If the prior knowledge of the missing skills is critical to the success of the role, you may want to move on to a more qualified candidate. But otherwise, it can help you figure out how you can assist the candidate's professional development and, perhaps even more importantly, "assess the candidate's willingness to work toward improving in those areas," Richards adds.
[Related: 10 Hacks to Hire for Hard-to-Fill Roles]
6. Would you recommend this candidate?
It's a straightforward question, but one that shouldn't be ignored. Some references may feel obligated to highlight positive things about the candidate when asked about their strengths and weaknesses or accomplishments, but with a question as blunt as this, it will be much more apparent whether they are truly enthusiastic in their endorsement of a candidate - perhaps the best predictor of a candidate's future success.
"You can also provide [them] with an option to email you additional comments if they feel like any extra information might be helpful," Pesch adds.
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