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Questions to Ask When Checking References

May 21, 2015


May 21, 2015

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Failing to perform an adequate background check on a new employee can be a major expense for an employer – according to a 2013 CareerBuilder survey, 27 percent of employers report that a single bad hire can cost more than $50,000.

Knowing how to approach your candidate’s references and what to ask them is vitally important if you’re looking to hire. In his book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t,” expert management consultant Jim Collins says that hiring managers should “take the time to make rigorous A+ selections right up front,” adding that “every minute devoted to putting the proper person in the proper slot is worth weeks of time later.

Some employers don’t put much stock in references, perhaps after being burned in the past by glowing references that led to the hiring of a sub-par employee or because the candidate was so impressive in person that they don’t believe they need to do a background check. But think again – a 2012 CareerBuilder survey found that 3 in 10 responding employers had heard only negative things about a potential hire from a former employer, while 29 percent had detected a false reference on a job seeker’s application – a strong sign that the applicant is less than honest or overly concerned about what actual references would say about them.

The good news? By speaking to the right people and asking the right questions, you can find out plenty about your prospective new hire before bringing them on board – and potentially making a very expensive mistake.

The first question you should ask is a simple one: “What is your relationship to the candidate?” A personal reference like a friend or family member is likely worthless to you, as is someone who simply worked alongside your candidate and likely became his or her friend. Always ask to speak to someone who directly supervised or managed your candidate, ideally on a daily basis, and watch for verbal clues… while in recent years legal constraints have made it more difficult to directly badmouth a former employee, you can often pick up “bad vibes” from pauses, hesitation or even an outright tone of bitterness or hostility.

Once you’ve made a connection with the right person, it’s critical to ask the right questions. Think of “essay questions” rather than simple “yes or no” questions, as these will make the reference think more deeply about the candidates strengths or weaknesses. You’ll also have more time to interpret the subtext of their remarks.

Here are ten essential questions you must ask:

  1. Verify the candidates dates of employment, title and role. It’s tempting for candidates to fudge these, so you’ll want to make sure you have the right information.
  2. Company politics aside, would you rehire this person? What was his or her reason for leaving the job? You might catch the candidate in a lie here – for example, that they were fired rather than leaving for “personal reasons” – or discover a valid reason why their old employer wouldn’t hire them again, and therefore you probably shouldn’t, either. It’s also an important question to ask to gauge how long a candidate might stay with you – if they’ve jumped from job to job, they might start looking for a better opportunity as soon as you hire them, too.
  3. Was the candidate ever promoted or demoted during his or time at the company? If a candidate worked at the same firm for many years and never moved up, they may not have the potential to advance in your company, either.
  4. What was the candidates beginning and ending salary? This information can help you when it comes time to negotiate a salary with your new hire.
  5. What kinds of duties and responsibilities did the candidate have? Did he or she perform them satisfactorily? Did they ever go above and beyond, or on the flip side, turn in substandard work or miss deadlines? How did he or she deal with mistakes? By getting a better idea of how a candidate performed their duties and dealt with errors, you will be better equipped to make a decision as to whether they are a good fit for your company’s work environment.
  6. What were the candidate’s strengths? Would you describe him or her as a hard worker? This one’s simple: let the employer tell you about the candidate’s best qualities. If they struggle to come up with more than three, you might have exposed a bad candidate.
  7. Ask the reference about tasks the candidate will be asked to perform in the new position. Does he or she believe the candidate is capable enough to do this job? Few people know a candidate’s abilities better than their past supervisors, so it can help you to ask if they believe the candidate will be able to perform in the job you have for them.
  8. Was the candidate always on time? Were there any issues with frequent lateness or absenteeism? Again, this one is simple: you want to hire someone reliable.
  9. Did the candidate get along with his or her peers? What about managers? If they dealt with customers, what was their manner like and were there ever any problems or complaints? Nobody wants a new hire that spreads venom in the office or has a bad manner with customers. You want to hear that the candidate was a good team player who did what they could to get along with everybody.
  10. Is there anything else I should consider before I hire this candidate? This final question gives the former employer a chance to talk about anything you’ve missed – and perhaps let some vital information slip.

There’s one more question you may want to ask as well – “What do you think the candidate needs to advance his or her career development?” This could reveal all kinds of useful information – perhaps the candidate has important gaps in their education or training that prevented them from moving up in their previous job, or perhaps they were more than capable of moving up but management was fully staffed already.

This question will also give you some insight into whether you can expect the candidate to blossom at your company – if the reference answers that the candidate needed more knowledge of computing and you have an IT worker who can walk the candidate step-by-step through the programs they’ll need to use in your office, you might expect to see them grow in their new role. If the reference answers that they were too chatty with other coworkers and were a distraction, they might not fit in your open office space where everybody can talk to everybody else.

Taking the time to perform reference checks can be a chore, but it can also reveal valuable information about your candidate that you won’t find anywhere else. Call with an open mind and be prepared to hear the good and the bad – with thousands of dollars riding on your decision, a few phone calls shouldn’t be too hard for you to make.

Crimcheck specializes in pre-employment screening and background checks. We have been protecting your brand using real people, proven business solutions and innovative technology since 1991.

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