Management Matters

What to Ask a Candidate’s Reference

Date Posted: 10/13/2014

Investigating a candidate’s background is integral to ensure you have made the correct choice. However, checking back with references given by the candidate on past performance history may sometimes be unsatisfactory, and even frustrating, as many past employers hesitate in offering relevant information except tenure dates, salary history and designations. Consequently, such reference check-backs end up as nothing more than a polite generalization not enabling you to get any previous performance knowledge of the candidate.

A basic background check verifying only a candidate’s claims isn’t enough as it is critical to establish whether the candidate really has the abilities in his areas of responsibilities as claimed. Therefore a detailed performance-based appraisal is most important in the final selection.  Background checks are best conducted over the phone and being intuitively alert to the more telling “un-said” parts by the reference, rather than just what is actually revealed, is important.

Assuming that the candidate has alerted a reference, and prepared him for the come back-check, you can draw conclusions from the kind of feedback the reference is ready with.  However, a too detailed recount may hint of tutoring and not altogether impartial.

Adopting a uniform code for all candidates, your questions should be directly related to the position on hire, maintaining objectivity, free from pre-conceived perceptions:

•    Assess the reference

The most credible reference would be a former operational supervisor because a specific and critical assessment is much more likely to be obtained rather than a generalized or undeserved ‘good’ report. Hesitations or diplomacy in assessment by the reference should prompt deeper enquiry.

•    Clarify the reason for the discussion

Open the discussion by stating your recruiting intentions and ask about the nature and length of the reference’s relationship with the candidate. This will confirm whether and when the reference and the candidate worked together, and the extent of their professional association.

•    Discuss details of the position held

Explain the role of the candidate to the reference to make sure the candidate has the skills to handle the key areas of responsibility he is being hired for.  Compare the role that the reference speaks of, with the candidate’s stated job profile, and spot any things that do not fit. Highlight the new position’s primary responsibilities and ask the reference to focus on each of the specific areas. The answers will not only reveal how well the reference really knew the candidate but also expose any evasive or vague answer which may suggest that the candidate overstated his claim.  Be alerted if the reference only generalizes, or withholds specific information on the candidate’s past job responsibilities.

•    Verify the candidate’s strengths and record of accomplishments.

Candidates usually inflate their achievements, and a good way to validate such claims is by pointedly asking a reference for confirmation. Prompt the reference to recount the candidate’s career highlights and find out if the candidate received any recognition for his work through promotions or other forms of appreciation while in their service. Find out if the candidate has any special aptitudes.  On the positive side, look for characteristics that show a candidate’s potential not just his or her past record.

•    Discover candidate’s weaknesses

These may have not have been consciously expressed by the reference but asking why the candidate is leaving will provide the reference a chance to elaborate on some negative aspects of the candidate. Prompt the reference to reveal his impressions of any weaknesses the candidate may have.   Enquire if the candidate was ever reprimanded or disciplined, and if so, why and for what kind of failures?

•    Consider candidate’s capacity for working independently as well as a team member.

Teamwork abilities are valuable in many roles, but an ability for independently handling tasks is an added asset and would suggest higher potential. Also determine whether the candidate showed respect for other employees’ contributions and his willingness to consider others’ opinions.

•   Gain insight on personal working style

Ask the reference about the candidate’s work style and get an opinion on how he responded to authority. Match this carefully with the job requirement in the new role.  Understand the candidate’s motivation factors as this may affect his productivity in case of any mismatch. Enquiries on whether the candidate is flexible and a quick learner, open to new methods of working is also important.

•    What was the candidate’s record of dependability

Determine whether the candidate demonstrated her seriousness in on-time delivery of tasks regularly, or whether she was casual and over-confident in her abilities.

•    Confirm fitness to assume new roles

If the reference recounts generalized strengths that he believes qualifies the candidate for the new role, dig deeper for specific reasons why he believes this. Ask for personal attributes that prompt such conclusions.

•    Establish the real reason for leaving last job.

Over and above matching fact with the candidate’s stated reason, this question will also point to the candidate’s own expectation in the new role. Visualize if the transition will be smooth and easy, or will it need much adjustment.

•    Extract overall evaluation.

Having gotten so far, now ask the reference if he feels that his organization would be losing someone good, and whether they would have liked to still retain the candidate, circumstances allowing. The answer to this may sometimes give you all you need to know about hiring the candidate.

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