To the list of things that people either love or hate — Tom Brady, cats, brussels sprouts — we can safely add reference checks. Fans see them as a sure-fire way to uncover candidates’ abilities and to learn if they are likely to be a phenom or a fiasco. Haters, on the other hand, find them to be a complete waste of time.
One of the reasons reference checks can feel unproductive is that many companies put no structure in place when asking candidates to list references. Predictably, they end up with the contact info for the prospective hire’s BFFs, who will invariably say the candidate is:
But when reference checks are done right, they can be hugely helpful and be the difference between hiring the right or wrong person. So to help you get more out of this process, we’ve done our research and laid out who are the best references to talk to and the best questions to ask when checking references to get the information you need.
Talk to the right people: Have your candidates help you reach out to their former managers
Instead of having candidates give you a list of their reference choices, ask them to include the names and phone numbers of their former managers on their application. Understandably, they may not want you talking to their current boss if their new job search is a secret. If that’s the case, ask to talk to a manager from a previous role.
This is a fair request, and the way your candidates respond — are they helpful or evasive? — may be a critical clue to what kind of employee they might be.
In addition, your candidate may be the ideal person to set up your reference calls. The candidate has well-established relationships with any references, who may be much more willing to chat if they believe they can help a former colleague by doing them a favor.
Once you have the right person on the phone, ask questions that will reveal truly useful information
Once you have an ex-manager on the phone, make sure to tell them that all of their answers, no matter how glowing or how glaring, will be kept in absolute confidence. None of your conversations will get back to the candidate (let’s call that person Pat). Here are the questions you should consider asking:
1. Tell me about how you and Pat worked together
To start things off, give Pat’s former manager a chance to get comfortable and to start verifying what Pat has already told you. Find out when they worked together and for how long, and check on Pat’s title and responsibilities. Make sure you find out how closely and regularly Pat and the reference worked together.
2. Did Pat have any major accomplishments while working for you?
To some extent, this is a softball question to further relax the reference and to validate, again, claims Pat made in interviews. It's also a reminder that reference checks are not simply a “gotcha” exercise to catch candidates in a fib or exaggeration. They are a chance to better understand the qualities and skills Pat brings, particularly if Pat’s a humble or introverted person who may have struggled selling themselves during your interviews.
3. For this position, we need someone who can __________ [fill in the most important things]. How would you rate Pat on each?
This question is essential. “This is an opportunity for you to get a third party’s perspective on the candidate’s potential skill match for the position you are hiring,” says Sean Falconer, the former CTO and founder of Proven who is now staff developer advocate and developer relations manager at Google.
To understand which of these things would be Pat’s strength — and which would be a weakness — have your reference rate Pat on each of the competencies you list. Ask them to use a 1-to-10 scale and only allow them to give you a 10 on one of them in order to get a more realistic picture.
4. What are Pat’s greatest strengths?
The answer to this question will allow you to calibrate your impressions — based on Pat’s resume, interviews, and work samples — with those of someone who has worked alongside Pat. You’ll also have a chance to see how the response lines up with Pat’s self-assessment, which may offer a clue to Pat’s self-awareness and allow you to calibrate other answers.
5. What are Pat’s biggest weaknesses? Is there any area where they would need additional support in their first 90 days?
This question serves a dual purpose. As Pat’s prospective manager, you need to know how to make Pat successful in a new role. The question may also help you determine whether Pat is coachable. If the reference gives you an answer that is a little cliché — say, “Pat works too hard” or “they care too much” — find out what’s underneath it. Does Pat come to work exhausted? Does Pat seem low on energy? If you get a thoughtful answer here and then offer Pat a job, you will have a big head start with insights that might have taken you months or even years to acquire otherwise.
The other purpose of this question is to surface any reasons why you may want to rethink Pat as part of your team. For example, if Pat’s former boss says Pat would really benefit from some anger management classes, you might want to consider ending your interview early and moving on to Candidate B.
6. Was Pat a good communicator and listener?
It’ll be helpful to get a sense of some of Pat’s soft skills. If your reference says Pat was a good communicator, ask for an example of when that showed up. Same for listening skills. And each time you ask for a specific instance you are also checking on how well your reference really knows Pat. Of course, you can swap out these two soft skills for others you feel are more important to get info on.
7. In your experience, does Pat work better alone or with a team?
Some professionals are much better at one than the other. Your team may need someone who can go off on their own and perform magic, or you may need someone who will be the necessary glue for a large project. Make sure Pat will fit your needs.
8. Can you give me an example of a setback or stressful challenge that Pat faced and tell me how Pat dealt with it?
Work — particularly creative and challenging work — is never an endless parade of easy victories. Obstacles are confronted, mistakes made, setbacks encountered. You want to find out whether Pat rises to challenges or simply disappears. Is Pat an exemplar of when the going gets tough, the tough get going?
Do problems unleash Pat’s creativity and collaboration or do they trigger finger-pointing and withdrawal? Try to get your reference to be as specific as possible about the circumstances of a high-stress project, the outcome, and Pat’s response and behavior when tested.
9. Did Pat receive any promotions while at your company?
If Pat was promoted, that generally bolsters Pat’s candidacy. If not, make sure you push to understand why — no open positions, stronger internal candidates (a possible red flag), missing skill set, etc.
10. On a scale of 1 to 10, compared to other people you’ve hired, how would you rate Pat?
“You want to hear 8, 9, or 10,” writes author Jeff Hyman in his book Recruit Rockstars. “Anything less than an 8 is a red flag, because they’re likely being generous.” If Pat’s an 8 or 9, what would it have taken for Pat to be a 10?
11. Why did Pat leave your company?
Like your opening question, this one allows you to validate what Pat has already told you.
12. Would you rehire Pat?
Listen carefully. “I’m looking for ‘definitely’ or ‘absolutely’ without hesitation,” Jeff says.
13. Is there anyone else you’d recommend I speak to?
It’s always a good idea to get different perspectives, so ask your reference if there is anyone else who would be good for you to talk to and can offer new insight. This could be someone who worked alongside or under Pat and can offer a different perspective.
A strong reference check can help ensure you hire the right candidate
With embellishment, embroidery, and even outright lying being possibilities during the interview process, well-executed reference checks can be truly beneficial.
But this shouldn’t merely be seen as a chance to trip up your candidate. A real conversation with a former supervisor can have other benefits. For example, it can level the playing field for an introverted candidate. As the Financial Times asked in an article entitled “Introverts Pose a Problem for Hirers,” how “can employers persuade introverts to blow their own trumpets about how they prefer not blowing their own trumpets?”
For a hiring manager, a strong reference interview can also give you an enormous head start on managing a new employee.