What to ask when checking references and other hiring tips
Hiring 5 minute read

What to ask when checking references and other hiring tips

Megan Orr | October 27, 2020

Knowing what to ask when checking references for potential job candidates can be awkward, or too structured. Many HR departments treat it as a chore, but it can actually be a great way to get to know a candidate better.

Completing reference checks may seem like a relatively straightforward task. Get contact details from your final candidates, speak with the references and ask them a few basic questions to confirm the candidate’s dates of employment and possibly get a bit more insight into their work habits and strengths. 

However, treating a reference check as just another to-do in the hiring process might be a mistake. The references check can be one of the most informative steps in the interview process, helping you to identify and hire the right candidate. How to effectively complete an employment reference check is a much more nuanced process than just going through the motions. 

Do you know when you should complete your reference calls during the interview process? What happens if an applicant is unable to provide enough references? And, what if you run into the common issue of companies that only allow you to speak to human resources and confirm that the employee did work there during these dates, but not much more?

The reality is that some candidates will cater their cover letters to the job posting and edit their resumes with keywords to make it very likely that their resumes will be picked for an interview, particularly by AIs. Then, during the job interview(s), they’ll make sure to answer questions in a way that matches the job description and job requirements. 

In essence, these people are great at interviewing—but they may not be the best candidates, and you might miss some red flags if you’re eager to fill a role. That’s why it’s so important to do a background check and verify facts with the candidate’s former employers.

Continue reading to learn more about how to best check employment references and what to ask when checking references.

When it comes to hiring, there are certainly best practices and… less than best practices.

According to the Harvard Business Review, the most common mistake that hiring managers make is in treating reference checks as just another step in the hiring process. They write that you can’t always trust your intuition with candidates as they may leave out important information or not be entirely truthful about their work experience, and that, “[w]orst-case scenarios aside, reference checking often yields ‘vital’ information about the candidate”.

Aside from not completing reference checks at all, or only asking very basic questions, another mistake hiring managers make is not asking for input from others on the team. You should speak with the initial person who did the screening or phone interview, the other interviewers, or people on the team who will be working directly with the candidate to determine what questions are left unanswered or if there are any doubts.

Additionally, you might be missing out on key insights if you just speak to the references the candidate provided. You can request that candidates provide you with at least one former manager as a reference rather than just colleagues. However, if the candidate is currently employed elsewhere, be very cautious about going around them and requesting any information from their current workplace. Doing so might cost the candidate their job. 

Another common mistake is not blocking out enough time for a reference check. Harvard Business Review recommends scheduling an hour. They note that even though it likely won’t actually take that long, it’s good to not have to rush through. 

One of the key things about doing reference checks is just doing them. Many companies will ask for references and then not actually speak with the references, or treat it as simply a formality, having already sent the candidate a job offer.

As for when to check references in the hiring process, it should be before you make an employment offer, but after you’ve already gathered as much information as you can directly from the candidate. 

Before you begin asking your reference check questions, take a bit of time to clearly explain to the reference what the role would entail in terms of experience and day-to-day tasks. Harvard Business Review says that you should mention specific qualifications you are looking for, or particular situations that the employee will find themselves in. Most importantly, “[d]on’t interrupt and ‘don’t supply the person with the answer you want’”. 

As far as what to ask when checking references, it’s important to use a variety of focused questions as well as questions that use information garnered from the interview.

Relying on open-ended questions such as “what can you tell me about what’s-his-name?” will result in vague and possibly meaningless information. By asking questions tailored to each candidate, you’ll find out information that specifically relates to the candidate’s work ethic and their suitability to the role, rather than just their personality. 

As mentioned previously, it’s important to listen carefully to what the person is saying and try not to interrupt so that you are not unintentionally “leading the witness” so to speak into giving you the answers you want to hear. 

And while professional references such as a former manager are ideal, some candidates (especially those new to the workforce) may have only colleagues or friends listed as references. This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. If the individual has people willing to be references for them—whether they are former team members or a family friend—that have good things to say, it might be time to think about that start date. If you have any additional reservations, you can consider checking the potential employee’s social media to try to get a better feel for who they are, or move on to another candidate.

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