What to Ask When Checking References

It’s easy for hiring managers to be swept off their feet by an applicant with an outstanding resume and excellent interview. However, you can only know so much about a candidate by their own testimony. As recent articles have surfaced, it’s becoming more and more clear that candidates sometimes exaggerate on their resumes and in interviews, and some even outright lie.

The smartest (and easiest!) thing you can do for your organization when recruiting new personnel is to perform a fast, thorough, and standardized reference check before extending an offer. This one small move can be the difference between hiring a competent, long-term employee, and a fraudulent applicant who will end up wasting both time and money for your company.

But what questions should you be asking to get the facts straight and determine whether this potential is the correct new hire? In this article, you’ll find a reference checking guide that will get you on the road to smarter hiring decisions.

Are you part of an large organization? If so, check out our reference check guide for enterprises.

Things to Keep In Mind

There are a number of ethical codes and laws in place which dictate what you can and can’t ask or answer during a reference check. See our article here for more information on legal guidelines when checking references. As a result of these guidelines, many companies will only give you the basics when it comes to discussing a candidate — “yes, they worked here” — and policies such as these are in place to protect both the candidate’s former workplace from liability, as well as the candidate themself from discriminatory hiring practices.

But you can avoid overstepping any boundaries and still get the answers you need to make a great hire by asking the right questions, and implementing some best practice methodologies when performing your reference checks.

A good reference check:

  • Is straightforward and transparent. Your candidate should know that you will be conducting a check, and they should have a clear idea of your process.
  • Exclude personal questions which could be read as discriminatory. Inquiries about race, religion, sexuality, family status, etc. are of course off limits.
  • Is designed using contribution from multiple sources. Before you call the reference, you should ask all parties who were involved in sourcing, screening, and interviewing the candidate for their input. Be sure to follow up on any concerns or requests for elaboration they might express. As well, the more references you get to give input, the clearer picture you will get of the candidate.
  • Make sure that the people the candidate gave as references, line up with the colleagues and supervisors of the last companies the candidate put on the resume. If the candidate claims to have worked recently for 4 years at company X, the supervisors and peers from company X should be their references.
  • Verify that the achievements on the resume line up with the major accomplishments outlined by the references. If your candidate claims to have run major projects and you don’t see them highlighted by their reference, it’s worth questioning the involvement of the candidate.

The Right Questions to Ask

Once in conversation with the reference, leverage the following questions for a clear and contextual picture of your candidate.

What would you say are the candidate’s greatest strengths? Their greatest avenue for improvement?

What did they do well in their last position? What could they have done better? Chances are you asked the candidate this same question during the interview, and now’s your chance to see if their reference agrees. The answer will not only allow you insight into the candidate’s skillset, but also give you an idea of their self-awareness and ability to hear feedback, depending on the similarity of the answers given by either party.

What was one of the candidate’s most notable achievements held while working at your company?

A good candidate does their job well, but a great candidate goes above and beyond the description of their responsibilities to the ultimate benefit of the organization as a whole. The answer to this question will let you gauge whether your potential new hire is just one of many, or a truly exceptional talent.

Look beyond the work skills into the candidate’s soft skills.

Soft skills measure how well a person is able to interact effectively and harmoniously with others. There are job specific questions that can be asked, however soft skills and culture fit are often the keys to success, so ensure to have a mix of questions that cover not just work skills, but culture fit and soft skills as well.

If you had the chance, would you work with this candidate again?
In some cases, this may be the only question you are able to ask, but it will tell you everything you need to know. If the answer is not “yes, absolutely,” you may want to take a step back from this particular potential.

Saving Time on the Reference Checking Process

In order to obtain valuable information on your candidate, you can see that you’ll need to invest some significant time and energy interviewing references for specific facts and observations. Even once you know the magic number for reference checking, the task of making all these long reference phone calls may suddenly seem very daunting.

This is precisely the reason Harver Reference customers from around the globe decided to pull their reference checking process into the digital age and automate their reference checks. With Harver’s automated reference checking solution, your recruiters can set up a digital reference check in just 2 minutes, saving you over an hour of time per candidate checked.

In addition, Harver Reference takes the worry out of knowing exactly which questions to ask. It provides templates of reference questions that are validated by I/O psychologists and found to be accurate predictors of performance and turnover.

And finally, even if you ask the right questions, have you ever noticed your phone checks don’t provide very candid feedback? Too often, references are reticent to open up and supply short, trivial answers. Harver Reference’s automated surveys solicit detailed, honest feedback about candidates. Compared to the 2 responses on average you’ll get from the phone (after over an hour or two of chasing them down), Harver Reference customers see an average of 6 responses (with only 2 minutes of time from the recruiter), and compile that feedback into actionable, easy-to-read reports.

Ready to learn more about modernizing your reference checking process? Schedule a chat today to preview Harver Reference and get answers to your reference checking questions.

Harver Team

Harver Team

Posted on:
August 1, 2023

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