Reference Check Questions You Need to Ask

Ask Me No Questions, I’ll Tell You No Lies

phone callLast week I received two phone calls from women who once worked for me. In a fun coincidence, they both asked if I would provide a reference.

I was delighted to oblige as they had done extremely well in their jobs. One I hired myself and the other I had inherited from another manager.

Within days I received both reference calls. One call was made by the actual hiring manager and one from a human resource manager.

Interestingly enough, both calls started out the same way. “So, what do you think of Mary?” (Name changed to protect the innocent.) To such a general question, I almost didn’t know what to say. “What do I think of her about what?” is what I really wanted to say. (But I didn’t. I do try to keep my sarcastic self in a box most of the time!)

“I think she’s great,” was my response. Then, there was a long pause on the other end of the line. I was having a little fun, but in both cases it was clear there was no second question coming.

Don’t Miss this Golden Opportunity

The reference check is an ideal time to get a clear picture of the person you are contemplating bringing on board. But you can only do this when you have a clear idea yourself of the kind of information you want.

Here’s a three-point checklist that will make your reference calls easy, fun (in some cases) and always VALUABLE!

  1. Ask if it’s a good time to talk. References can be busy people. You need at least 15–30 minutes minimum for a good reference check. Refuse to get the “bum’s rush.” Get permission that this is a good time or set a time to call back.
  1. Get full contact information. Know who you are talking to and what their functional role or relationship is to the candidate. Are they a former boss, peer, customer or personal reference?
  1. Have good questions. Remember the old saw, “If you do not ask the right questions, you do not get the right answers.” Here are some specific questions:
    • Did you hire this person?
    • How long did they work for you?
    • Were you responsible for their performance reviews?
    • What was their most significant contribution during their time at your company?
    • Describe the overall quality of their work performance.
    • How well did they perform under stressful conditions, such as a sales or project deadline, organizational changes or customer issues?
    • Would you say they made a substantial, average or below-average contribution to the organization?
    • Were there any areas in which they needed improvement? Any particular weaknesses?
    • Would you hire them again?

You get the idea. You can design your own questionnaire based on what’s important for you to find out. I also like to include some ratings (For example, you could ask, “On a 1–5 scale, rate attention to detail, sales follow up, overall attitude, etc.”)

Remember, this is THE golden opportunity to get a look at your ideal candidate and you don’t want to miss it. You’ll be happy for the time you spent when you do a reference check that gives you such valuable insight.

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