12 Questions to Ask Job Candidates’ References

Once you have a reference on the phone, thank them for connecting with you. Tell them you need just 15 minutes and that everything will be held in confidence — you’re not going to share their feedback with the candidate (and honor this, of course). Tell them you’re looking for themes and patterns. You can say, “I’ve almost made my decision. This phone call is a good way for me to confirm my decision and learn the best ways to get the most out of him.” That disarms the interaction and allows for a more candid reference.

Here are the questions I recommend, in order:

  1. “Give me some context. Tell me a bit about how you worked together. When was that?” You’re seeking confirmation of the dates and reporting structure.
  2. “Tell me a bit about the role they were in.” Again, we’re validating the scope of the role that the candidate described.
  3. “As you know, I’m talking to (candidate’s name) about a (type of) role. It will require these competencies (list the three to five key competencies). To begin with, how would you say she rates on those competencies?”
  4. “What metrics did you use to measure her performance? Was she measured on revenue growth, cost reduction, number of new customers signed, etc.?” This will provide insight into what she was asked to do in that role and how that compares to what you’re going to be asking of her.
  5. “How did she achieve these results? How was her performance?” Don’t accept generalities; keep digging. You are looking for specific examples.
  6. “At the time you worked together, what were her strengths and weaknesses?” Define strengths as areas where she was in the top 10 percent. “In what areas would you say she’s in the bottom 10 percent?”
  7. “How did she compare with the rest of your staff? Was she in the top 5 percent? Top 50 percent?”
  8. “Tell me about what led to her departure.” We’re looking for why and when she left the company. And importantly, whether the facts presented align with what the candidate shared earlier.
  9. “What’s the one thing she could have done to be more effective?” Don’t fill the awkward silence. If they say they can’t think of anything, say, “It’s okay, I don’t mind waiting a moment while you think about it.”
  10. If you’re filling a manager role, ask: “How would you describe her as a leader of people? What’s her style? How did her staff respond to her?”
  11. “Would you enthusiastically re-hire her again today?” I’m looking for “definitely” or “absolutely” without hesitation.
  12. “On a scale of 1 to 10, compared to all the people you’ve ever hired, how would you rate her?” You want to hear “8, 9, or 10.” Anything less than an 8 is a red flag, because they’re likely being generous.

Reference checking must be done in a phone call. People will not put negative things in writing, so don’t try to cut corners with a reference check via email. Keep the call to 15-20 minutes and offer to return the favor any way you can.

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From Recruit Rockstars: The 10 Step Playbook to Find the Winners and Ignite Your Business by Jeff Hyman. Copyright 2017 by Jeff Hyman. Image from bigstock

Jeff Hyman is the  bestselling author of Recruit Rockstars: The 10 Step Playbook to Find the Winners and Ignite Your Business. The chief talent officer at Chicago-based Strong Suit Executive Search, Hyman currently teaches the MBA course on recruiting at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and hosts the five-star Strong Suit Podcast. He has been featured by Inc., Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Bloomberg, and other media outlets. Learn more at recruitrockstars.com.


5 Comments on “12 Questions to Ask Job Candidates’ References

  1. Great points! This reminds me of something mentioned in this article about unusual interviews: http://recruit.ee/bl-unusual-interviews-eb-bh
    One of the “unusual” tactics is to cross-reference the interviewees’ answers. Interviewees will almost always intend to put their best foot forward, and sometimes that may mean that they are flubbing a bit on their resume or answers. It doesn’t mean they are a bad person or not the right fit, but it’s a good idea to check with the references to see the truth so that you can judge them accurately.

  2. Not sure I agree with some of your points, Jeff and I know we could argue all day regarding the best strategy for approaching references.

    I don’t know why you suggest a reference call will only take fifteen minutes- I spent a good half hour with several executives until I finally got what I wanted [but did not know what it would be]- the candidate we were considering was a secret alcoholic. If I had not spent so much time creating an air of casual comfort for the reference to whom I was speaking, I’m not sure I would have gotten this information. Regardless of what you say, executives are practiced in exercising caution in their conversation so it is necessary to give references the time to relax in this conversation and feel totally comfortable. You won’t get this if you tell the reference in advance you are going to be on the phone with them for all of fifteen minutes. When you say that, they quickly calculate what their next call or appointment is and are already having two conversations with themselves in anticipation of your telling them this is a ‘quick call’. They are half with you and half with someone or something else during that call.

    Telling a reference you have mostly made your decision takes them off the hook and tells them they only have to say the least and get off the phone since you just said you don’t really need their input. You have just shot yourself in the foot.

    An internal recruiter may need a reference to ‘confirm’ what they have already been told by the candidate but an external recruiter who has the luxury of speaking with the candidate/recruit several times on separate days -if they are good listeners and know how to ask the right questions- should not need a reference to confirm anything.

    The true purpose of reference checking, especially for an external recruiter, is to seek out skeletons that did not show up in conversations with the recruit/candidate. For example, a Six Sigma MBB executive may have a good grip on the toolset and have outstanding metrics on their resume but the untold story may be that with each project executed, there was unnecessary waste or employee defections because the MBB is not necessarily an effective Change Agent. Employees who quit or created a lot of resistance/drama during Change or dollars lost in the execution of a SS project won’t show up on that candidate’s resume.

    So, say less at the outset of a reference check call, simply explain you are looking for ‘good things’ to know about your candidate and then as the conversation progresses, gently turn the conversation in the direction you need it to go in order to discover anything hidden that the reference would not normally be speaking of. There may be nothing to discover but if you don’t set the correct tone of the call and dig, you won’t find anything.

    Retained Executive Search

    1. Hi Paul – thank you for sharing your perspective. It’s a good one because you’re clearly serious & seasoned at the practice. Unfortunately, most aren’t, particularly in-house recruiters & hiring managers. People skip reference checks, abuse them, or ask questions that are useless. While I can’t (and don’t) say that my questions are the ‘best,’ they’re far better than what I’ve seen my clients ask. There is no authoritative list – I’ve found mine get at the confirming data (or not) that I’m seeking. Like you, my reference calls can take far longer than 15 minutes (30, 60+ minutes) but I’ve learned that when I ask for a short amount of time, I’m far more likely to get on their calendar. Thanks again for your note — Jeff

      1. Yes, Jeff, our processes and practice is certainly abused and underutilized. Still, to this day, too many ‘recruiters’ are approaching Reference Checking as a clipboard task and/or are actually seeking confirmation of their own assessments so they don’t prove to be ‘wrong’ about presenting their candidates to an appropriate HA. We can take this a step further by acknowledging that a poorly trained HR ‘professional’ who can’t adequately assess a recruit/candidate will prove to be just as incompetent in collecting reference checks.

        IOW, if they can’t accurately assess their recruits, they are hardly in a position to effectively engage with HA’s who had previously employed their recruits.

        So my points are meant for those who are experienced enough to understand and be willing to ‘take reference checking to the next level*’.

        Gag me with a spoon! I hate that ‘next level’ phrase!

        Thank you for your acknowledgments.

        Best Regards,

        Paul………….since 1980 and no bad hires [yet].


  3. I like this for reference questions. It gets to the point and you get the information to make an informed decsion.

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