Reference Check Questions that Work!

I am heartbroken. Anna McCarthy has gone off to college. My life has just taken a turn and I feel it may not be for the better.

Let me explain. I have known Anna since she was five years old when her family moved onto our street.

I met her on Halloween when she came to my door trick or treating. I opened the door to this little girl with big brown eyes and a smile as wide as the plastic pumpkin she was holding. With a blue lab coat, cotton “OR” type cap and stethoscope around her neck, I exclaimed, “Ah, I see you’re a doctor!” “No,” she replied quickly, “I am a veterinarian.”

Anna’s love of all animals, especially dogs and horses, was apparent from that moment on. Over the years she would become our dog walker, dog sitter, house sitter and finally, my “sous gardener.” (Anna’s gardening skills surpass my own.) Our dogs, our yard and our lives were never happier than when Anna was around.

But that’s all over and I am left with a page full of names of possible replacements for Anna, provided by various neighbors and friends (luckily I didn’t need to post a job). I have started talking to some candidates and now find myself in the reference question stage of the process. But, needless to say, vendors, like candidates, provide you with references they know will be positive. So, is there really any point in making these calls? Yes!

It’s much the same when hiring a new employee. References tend to be real supporters of the candidate and probably won’t say anything negative. So, how can you get valuable information about your potential employee? It’s real simple.

How to Get the Most of Reference Check Questions

There are just TWO rules you have to remember when checking references:

  1. Talk to the Right People
  2. Ask the Right Questions

Talk to the right people

Make sure that your final candidates give you the kind of references that you need. Be specific about who you must speak with. Here’s what I request from candidates for the reference check process:

  • Two former bosses or managers. Be sure you speak with someone who, like yourself, has managed your candidate. They will be a good guide to how the candidate responds to motivation, work ethic, etc. (More about that later).
  • A customer. This is especially important when hiring a salesperson. You want to see how your candidate comes across to prospects and customers. Top salespeople will be happy to give you a customer reference. They are proud of their accomplishments and many times these relationships last long after the sale is made.
  • A peer. This is not as important as the manager or customer, but a peer can give valuable insight as to how your potential employee works in a team environment. And, even though you may be hiring an individual contributor who may be in a remote office, remember that she has to fit in with the rest of your team. This type of reference is especially important when you are hiring in a marketing department, for example, where one person’s work directly correlates to another’s and meeting deadlines may depend on close cooperation.

If a candidate cannot give you three business references (especially a candidate who has been working for more than five years), you have reason to be suspicious. And, as a rule, I accept no personal references.

[Related: How to Screen for Retention]

Ask good reference check questions

Years ago (longer than I care to admit!) when I started my sales career, one of my best managers told me, “Ask the right questions and you’ll get the right answers.” This is not only true in selling; this is true in checking references as well. When I am called for a reference, I am always amazed at either how general the questions are (e.g., “So, how was Mary to manage?”) or how irrelevant they are (e.g., “Did you enjoy working with Mary?”). I wish I was kidding about these. Bad questions will get you bad answers.

First, be sure to take the important step of establishing rapport with your reference to make him feel comfortable about sharing information with you. Reassure the reference that your conversation is in the strictest of confidence as well.

Then, be more specific in your questions.

[Related: Guide to Closing Candidates]

Sample Reference Questions

  • How long have you known the candidate?
  • Were you involved in the hiring process or did you directly hire the candidate?
  • Did the candidate report to you directly or dotted line? Please describe your relationship with the candidate.
  • Did the candidate consistently hit or miss goals/quotas?
  • Would you say the candidate made a substantial, average, or below average contribution to the organization? Please describe the reasons for your answer.
  • How well did the candidate perform under stressful conditions such as facing sales or project deadlines?
  • How well did the candidate deal with any organizational or management changes that took place or any customer sales or service issues?
  • Were there any areas where the candidate excelled? Any particular strengths? Please be specific.
  • Conversely, are there any areas that the candidate could use improvement? Any particular weaknesses? Please be specific.

Remember, too, that keeping your reference check questions in a conversational manner will boost the quality of information shared. Good luck!

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Behavioral Interview Questions & Templates