Depending on who you ask, reference checks are either an extremely valuable tool or a complete waste of time. But the fact is: a great candidate’s resume is only part of the hiring equation.
A candidate has come through your talent pipeline. You’ve got their previous experience and accomplishments on paper, but the intangibles are still unknown to you. You can trust your intuition and go forward with a hire—but we’ve all been surprised before. If the candidate has garnished their resume, doesn’t play well with others, or has concealed significant information from you, there’s no way you’ll know unless you speak with a third party. That’s where a reference can swoop in and help set the record straight.
Best Practices Before You Interview References
Give some thought to a call before you make it. Compile the most important bits of information you want to learn about the candidate. Maybe you want to know more about their stint at a certain company, or you need clarification about a certain detail on their resume. Whatever it is, make sure you have a clear objective before reaching out to a reference.
Don’t use backdoor methods to gain access to other people who might know the candidate who aren’t references or current colleagues. Keep everything above-board.
If you want to get the most out of a candidate’s references, specifically ask them to list previous managers. That way, you’ll be certain you’re contacting people who have direct experience working with the candidate. Just be respectful of the candidate’s desired privacy: they may not want to list their most current boss if they’re looking for a job under the radar—that’s totally understandable.
And, of course, let the candidate know beforehand that you’ll be getting in touch with their references.
To sum it up:
- Be prepared: Have your questions ready and organized before you make the call. Make sure you’re calling the right people that will help you gain honest, accurate insights about the candidate.
- Be direct: Set the tone by describing the reason you’re calling. Detail the role you’re filling and its challenges. That way, your contact has the correct context for the call right away.
- Be professional: Let whoever you’re speaking with know that their answers will be kept in confidence. If they think something may get back to the candidate, there’s a chance they may be less forthright with their answers. Avoid negative language or leading questions. It’s a conversation, not an interrogation in which you use the reference to dig up dirt on the candidate.
14 Questions to Ask References
Of course, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all list. Focus on the questions you think will give you a better understanding of how the candidate would do in the unique role you’re hiring them for. That being said, this list is a good starting point.
1. What is your relationship with the candidate?
Conversations with a former manager versus a former colleague will inevitably be different. A candidate usually clarifies the relationship on the resume, but asking directly can be a good way to double-check and set the tone for the conversation.
2. How long have you known them?
You’d ask this for much the same reasons as you’d ask the above. Someone who’s been working with the candidate for five years will have much more hands-on experience and knowledge of their abilities than someone who’s been their coworker for, say, six months.
3. How effectively did they work together with others?
Resumes tell you all about hard skills and specific job experience. But soft skills, such as collaboration and communication abilities, are often more indicative of how well a candidate will perform at your company.
4. How reliable and dependable are they?
This is a straightforward question that will lend you additional context as to how they may perform in your workplace. Listen closely for specific examples of the candidate demonstrating reliability and dependability.
5. What are their strengths and weaknesses?
Chances are high that you’ll ask the candidate this question directly during the interview. But consulting a third party offers a more unbiased perspective. It also clues you into how self-aware the candidate is regarding their areas of improvement. If a reference identifies a major weakness, but the candidate perceives the same thing as a strength, it might be a red flag.
6. What are their memorable accomplishments?
It’s important to get as much background as possible about the actual work the candidate has done. What did they achieve during their tenure at a previous company?
If the reference can’t speak to any specific accomplishments, don’t count that as a negative right off the bat. This question simply serves the purpose of helping collect more thorough details than what you might find on a resume.
7. What kind of work environment do you think they’ll thrive in?
And does it match up with your company’s environment? A candidate placed into a company culture that doesn’t mesh with them can be a disaster. It’s not just about whether they’re a good fit for your company; it’s about whether your company is a good fit for them.
8. What skills would you like to see them develop to reach their full potential?
An answer to this question serves three purposes:
- Learn whether the candidate has demonstrated the ability to grow, and get some honest insights into their true potential.
- Zero in on the specific skills the candidate has the potential to expand upon.
- Determine the extent to which the reference “believes” in the candidate. If the reference speaks glowingly about the candidate’s potential, it’s a good sign that the candidate has made an impact on them. If they offer nothing but recycled jargon about generic “growth potential”, it might indicate a lack of excitement about recommending the candidate.
9. Were they promoted or given additional responsibilities? Why or why not?
Though this is an important question to ask, don’t base your decision on it. If the candidate never moved up the ladder during their time at the reference’s company, ask some follow-ups to dig into the ‘why.’
A lack of upward growth isn’t always a bad sign. It could be a result of their previous employer’s structure or the amount of time they spent at the company. People leave jobs all the time and cite a ‘lack of growth potential’, and you should give these candidates the benefit of the doubt and believe them.
10. For this position, we need someone who can do X, Y, and Z. How do you rate the candidate on these things?
Be as specific as possible here; the more their current skills match up with what’s required in the role you’re hiring for, the better.
11. Why did candidate leave the company?
It goes without saying: only ask this question when you know the candidate has left the company in question. If that’s the case, the candidate has likely provided their own story for why they’re moving on. The reference’s answer doesn’t have to match the candidate’s, per se, but look out for any major details that the candidate failed to disclose.
For example, let’s say a candidate tells you that they left their last job due to a lack of growth potential. Then you speak with a reference, who informs you that the candidate was actually fired. Again: don’t view this as a ‘gotcha!’ moment and immediately disqualify the candidate. Instead, look into the situation a bit further until you feel like you have an honest understanding of the candidate’s history.
12. How did they respond to feedback?
This is another important part of working collaboratively at any company — particularly when it comes to creative roles, where someone’s work will be constantly reviewed and edited.
For example: let’s say you’re hiring a blog writer. Their work samples are polished and well-written. But, one of their former employers admits that the candidate’s biggest weakness is their inability to accept constructive feedback. For a different role, this might not be a major problem. But in a role where feedback is an integral part of the production process, it’s a red flag.
13. Would you recommend this candidate?
Since you’re speaking to a listed reference, you’d assume the answer to this question will always be a resounding “yes”. But listen closely for any hesitations, caveats, or concerns.
14. Would you rehire this candidate?
This question might seem superfluous after asking the one above. But recommending someone and re-hiring them are two entirely different things. An enthusiastic answer to this question is a great sign. After all, if someone can leave a company and still be welcomed back, they’re probably a fantastic employee.
Red Flags During Reference Interviews
The following warning signs can clue you in to whether something’s not quite right:
1. Negative comments
Presumably, a candidate gives you a list of people they think will speak highly of them. Encountering a former coworker or manager who has nothing good to say about your prospective hire shows a drastic disconnect and a probable red flag. (The candidate should have checked in with their references before they listed them as references in the first place.)
Ask a few follow-up questions if you’re sensing that the reference has a negative opinion of the candidate. Keep in mind: this is precisely why you should contact multiple references if you’re going to contact any. You never know when you’re going to call somebody on a bad day and find yourself in a more negative conversation than you expected. One bad reference interview shouldn’t disqualify a candidate.
2. Excessively positive recommendations
On the other hand, over-enthusiastic, glowing reviews should also set off your alarm bells. A person with all strengths and no weaknesses simply doesn’t exist.
Of course, most references want to help the candidates they’re vouching for, which means they probably won’t offer any negative details. But, after the conversation is over, ask yourself if the reference felt like they were being genuine. Trust your intuition; if the conversation felt inauthentic, it probably was.
3. Lack of specificity
Many of the questions we suggested above were aimed at getting specific, actionable insights about the candidate’s history. If the reference offers nothing but generic jargon, you should start to question whether they’re a reliable source of information. For instance, if they speak glowingly of the candidate’s “work ethic” but can’t provide a single detail to support this detail, can you really trust it to be true?
4. Inconsistent information
If a candidate has embellished their resume, you’ll more than likely hear that reflected in their references’ answers. Depending on the severity of the discrepancy, ask the candidate for clarification. Give them the benefit of the doubt: it could turn out to be a simple error. However, it’s possible they embellished their experience to a significant degree. Not a good indication of their reliability.
5. “Maybe don’t call this person.”
Getting hints that you shouldn’t contact a provided reference is weird, right? After all, these are the people the candidates themselves chose.
With that in mind, remember: respect the candidate’s wishes. If they seem to be hiding something that they know they should disclose, you’re undoubtedly going to consider that a red flag. But, there are many reasons a candidate might change their mind about a reference, including personal reasons that might be delicate. Trust your gut in these situations, but always respect the candidate’s boundaries.
Key Takeaways on Interviewing Candidate References
It’s a simple fact that speaking with references gives you a better chance of making an excellent hire. Of course, some reference interviews will be more worthwhile than others.
And, remember that a reference interview should almost never make or break a candidate’s chances of getting hired. View these interviews as opportunities to collect additional, useful information from a third-party. The more you can learn about a candidate as a real worker, rather than a bulleted list of skills and experience, the better employees you’ll end up with.
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