Reference Checking Questions You Should be Asking

Ask the right reference checking questions

Reference Checking Questions You Should be Asking

“The ability to ask the right questions is more than half the battle of finding the answer.”

- Thomas J. Watson, ex-CEO and Chairman of IBM

In this article, we will try and tackle the topic of reference questions for new hires. We will also talk about the process of reference checking after the interview. When it comes to reference checks and reference checking questions, people either love them or hate them. On the one hand, you have those who view reference checking as a means of uncovering the candidate’s abilities. It can be a tool to find out work history and even personality traits in some cases. On the other hand, some believe it to be not worth the time. Reference checks can feel like a waste of time when there is no proper structure or procedure in place. A lot of the time, you will end up with a list of references from the candidates who turn out to be their friends or other personal references. As expected, they will of course advocate for how great the candidate is.

Now, when a reference check is done right, it can be a vital tool in the recruitment process. It helps you make informed decisions about the people you hire. So, to help mitigate the negative aspects of this argument and help you get the most out of this process, we bring you this blog. We will talk about the people who would make the best references. We will also go over the best reference checking questions that you should be asking to get the information that you need.

Talking to the Right References: Reach Out via the Candidate

One of the best ways to get the ideal references is to ask the candidate to provide them. Ask the candidate for the names and numbers of their previous employer. Now, if they are yet to resign and are looking for a job, they obviously might not want you to get in touch for job safety reasons. You should respect that. Rather, ask for the contact number of a manager from a previous role. This is more than fair to both parties.

This is where it gets interesting. Depending on whether they are evasive or helpful, you will get a clear reading of what kind of employee they might be. On top of all this, the candidate might be the right person to put you in touch with their previous employers as they have a well-established relationship with them. These references might be more willing to chat if they believe that it would help a former colleague.

Reference checking questions
A candidate's achievements at their previous job can tell you a lot about their work ethic.

Asking the Right Reference Checking Questions

Once you have the right references, make sure to let them know about the confidentiality factor of the process. This is crucial if you want them to be honest and open with their answers. Tell them that no matter how glaring or glowing their feedback is, it all stays confidential. Here are the best reference checking questions you should be asking.

Question 1: What was the working relationship between you and the candidate?

Start the conversation off in a light manner, ease them into it. You don’t want to hit them with all the reference checking questions at once. This question will also allow you to start cross-checking basic information. You can verify things like the candidate’s title, responsibilities and other things they might have already told you.

Question 2: Did the candidate have any major accomplishments while working with you?

To a certain extent, this is another one of those reference checking questions that will help ease the reference’s mind. It serves a purpose beyond just validating any major milestones that the candidate may have had. This question stands as a reminder that the reference checking process is not built just to catch out candidates. It is an opportunity to learn more about the person behind the resume. So you can understand what exactly they bring to the table.

Question 3: What are some of his/her greatest strengths in your opinion?

This question is one designed for calibration beyond just the average understanding of skill sets. What we mean by this is that the answer to this question will tell you how well things line up with the initial rounds of interview, the candidate’s resume as well as their work samples. You will have a chance to see how the responses line up with the candidate’s self-assessment. This indicates self-awareness, with which you can calibrate the other answers you get. Essentially, does the reference’s assessment of the candidate line up with what the candidate thinks of their strengths?

Question 4: What were some areas of concern that you think stand out as red flags?

This is a big one. This question serves a dual purpose. As a prospective employer, you need to know if there are any areas for improvement, what they are and how to address them. You also need to know if the candidate is coachable. The other point of this question is to bring to the surface any reason you may want to rethink the hiring of a particular candidate. For example, if the reference says that the candidate might benefit from an extra month of training, then you have to question their capabilities and experience for that role.

Question 5: Did the candidate work better in a team or alone?

Look, neither has to be a bad or good thing, some professionals work best alone and some in a team. It just depends on what you, as the employer, are looking for. This will not only reveal if your candidate is a team player but also tell you how good of a communicator they might be. Soft skills are just as important as any other skills in a business. Keep in mind that when you are asking these questions, you are also evaluating how well the reference knows the candidate.

Depending on if the candidate got promoted at their last job or not will reveal a lot. Did they check all the right boxes?
the perfect reference checking questions

Question 6: Did the candidate receive any promotions while at your company?

If the candidate was promoted at one point, then this would bolster their resume and the likelihood of getting selected. However, if not, it might serve you better to understand why. Perhaps there were no open positions, or maybe the management decided they needed a stronger internal candidate (which could be a red flag), or something else entirely.

Question 7: Why did the candidate leave the company?

Much like the initial question, this one is another cross-checking question. It will tell you not only why they left but if it checks out with what the candidate told you in the initial rounds of the interview. It is also a good indicator of any red flags like if they left on bad terms, some workplace issue or something else.

Question 8: Would you rehire this candidate?

This is a follow-up to the previous question, because if the reference doesn’t give you a resounding ‘absolutely’, then you might have to reconsider. Hesitation implies there are some underlying issues. This is something you should probably probe more about. Ask the reference why they would or would not hire them back.

Question 9: Is there anyone else you would recommend I speak with?

The whole point of the reference checking process and asking all these reference checking questions is to gain insight from a different point of view. So, ask the references if there is anyone who would be willing and able to talk to you that can tell you more about the candidate. This could be someone who worked alongside the candidate or under them too.

Creative Reference Checking Process Solutions You Should Consider

There are many creative solutions to the reference checking process

Creative Reference Checking Process Solutions You Should Consider

“People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”

- Jim Collins, American Author

The reference checking process is part and parcel of the hiring process these days. At times it can be a highly useful tool to weed out the best candidates. Other times it can be a path that is fraught with challenges and obstacles. Usually, the references that candidates provide might be a combination of professional and personal references. Sometimes it can turn out these references have a bias toward or against the candidate which can impair the information gathering process.

Another common obstacle in the reference checking process is that hiring managers have to deal with a lot of red tape. Company policies can often limit the salary or even the dates of service that the HR representative can reveal about a former employee. Fair to say that the process can be time-consuming and trying. However, there are still workarounds. In this blog, we will explore how you as a reference checker can creatively and compliantly gather said information. Having said that, let’s dive in shall we?

The Hidden Gambit of the Reference Checking Process

You might have heard of the term ‘backdoor references’. These are references that the candidate didn’t directly provide. Now, it is important to keep in mind that, while it’s not illegal to contact people not specifically named as a reference by the candidate, there are certain guidelines. One of the major guidelines is consent. For instance, candidates should have given permission for reference checking to be conducted in the first place. You can’t just go over their heads on that.

Reference checkers should also not reach out to anyone the candidate has expressly asked not to contact. This especially applies to current employers of the candidate, as this could create several different issues for them.

Another thing to note is that you can branch out your investigation. If you happen to speak to the former manager of the candidate, you can ask them as to who they might recommend you speak with for more insight. As long as the candidate has specifically asked you not to, you’re free to reach out to these contacts.

Conversational skills can help you gain access to vital information during the reference checking process
Conversational skills can go a long way when trying to unearth the right responses during the reference check.

People Skills Matter in the Reference Checking Process

No matter how well you may know a potential reference or how deep you dig for information, people will be hesitant when it comes to candidates with a bit of a rock job history. In some cases people might be hesitant on account of how it may reflect on them if they are too critical; in this day and age, anything can become controversial. So, this is where some good old-fashioned people skills come in!

Include the Candidate in the Reference Checking Process

A neat trick of the trade or an approach rather, is one where you include the candidate in the reference checking process. In the initial interview, probe the candidate about potential strengths, weaknesses and areas for growth. Ask them what the previous manager would say if you were to call them up. Keep probing till you get answers that raise red flags. These red flags can then be brought up in the reference check with the previous employer. You would be surprised how forthcoming employers can be when discussing things about a candidate when they don’t have to bring it up first. The whole point of this process is so that you know what to look for in terms of red flags. Think of it as a roadmap to the investigation in a way.

"Hire character. Train skill."

- Peter Schutz, Former President of Porsche

Some Best Practices to Keep in Mind

A useful question that you can employ in your reference checking process, is to ask ex-employers how and when the candidate went above and beyond the call of duty. If they can immediately give you certain examples of how said candidate outperformed their responsibilities, then you know that this is a regular occurrence. If the reference struggles to recall such an event, it automatically tells you plenty about the work ethic of the candidate. Essentially, you need to be able to read between the lines and hear what they are not actively saying. They say silence speaks volumes, and in this case, it truly does.

Another best practice is to not accept general answers. The whole point of the reference checking process is to extract details that will help you make a more informed decision about the hire. So, if the reference does give you vague or general answers, ask them to elaborate.

You should also consider being attentive to the reference’s mannerisms. If they are eager to respond, that means they have a positive professional relationship with the candidate. On the other hand, if they are hesitant to speak to you, this could point to some underlying personal or professional issue that they had with the candidate. That’s a red flag that you should look into.

Lastly, strive for consistency. Keep the reference checking process going until all the information you have points to a similar consensus. This will give you a more accurate basis to get a sense of who the candidate is and what they are capable of.

Doing a Reference Check: A Step-by-Step Walkthrough

Reference Check

Doing a Reference Check: A Step-by-Step Walkthrough

“It is wiser to find out than to suppose.”

- Mark Twain, American Writer

As an employer, there might be different facets to the hiring process that you might be responsible for. However, one of the most important objectives of all those activities is to find the best employees possible. A part of accomplishing that is research. You need to do a little homework on who they are, where they came from, the kind of work they do and so on. This is where a good old reference check comes in handy!

Many companies and employers alike use reference checking as a tool to dive into the work history of candidates to see if they fit the role. However, there is a lot more to it than just checking someone’s resume. If you know what to ask, who to ask and how to go about it, a reference check can work wonders for your end recruitment result. In this blog, we will cover a step-by-step reference check that will give you the best results possible. Before we dive into it, you need to remember these are only the core steps that we are going to cover. You might need to add or modify steps according to your specific needs or circumstances.

Reference Check Step #1: Verify the Candidate's Identity

The first item on the agenda when conducting a reference check process; verify that the candidate is who they claim to be. Yes, this may seem quite obvious in hindsight, but you never know if you will be able to weed out the dishonest candidates in the batch. 

When you are reaching out to the previous employer, make sure to ask very specific questions. Ask about the candidate’s name, title at the previous company, dates of employment and whatever else basic information you require. Think of this as the background verification part of the process to make sure that this candidate is qualified to undergo the recruitment process. You don’t want to waste all your company’s time and resources taking them through the recruitment steps, only to find out that they didn’t even work at the capacity they claimed in the first place.

Reference Check credibility
The words of the reference carry only as much weight as the credibility of the reference themselves.

Reference Check Step #2: Verify the Reference's Relationship with the Candidate

Typically speaking, one would have to deal with professional references. This is what candidates would usually provide. However, in today’s changing job market and cultural fit requirements, even personal references are sometimes taken into consideration. With this being the case, the scope for error and false information grows. It is up to you to verify who these references are. Ask them how they know the candidate in question.

Once you know their relationship to the candidate, you can easily cross-verify the authenticity of the reference provided. This adds value and weight to the information the reference provides concerning the candidate. All these factors make this an important junction in the reference check process.

Reference Check Step #3: Gauge the Candidate's Fit

Now onto the whole point of this reference check– to find out if the candidate is a good fit for the company. Use your time wisely, especially if you are talking with references over the phone. Not many will be inclined to talk to you, and even fewer might be inclined to give you all the answers you need. So, every question has to be geared towards finding out if the candidate is a good fit for your company.

Explain the scope of the job to the reference and ask if they think the candidate is a good fit for that role. If they give you vague answers or hesitate, then it may be an indicator that the candidate might not be the one you are looking for. Remember, silence speaks volumes in the face of an investigation.

"Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought."

- Albert Szent-Gyrogyi, Hungarian Biochemist

Reference Check Step #4: Ask the Reference to Rank the Candidate

No doubt you will have to have a variety of questions ready for the reference check conversation. Some questions may be more open-ended than others, but the essential idea is to get an understanding of the person behind the resume. Having said that, one of the best ways to get an idea is to ask the references to rank the candidate on a scale of 1 to 10.

Asking them to rank candidates this way forces them to think more deeply about the number as it will represent a lot of what they have to say about the person. Now don’t be fooled when someone ranks someone a 10 out of 10. No one is that perfect, nor can they be. If they rank them suspiciously high, ask some follow up questions as to why they would claim that number. The same applies if references rank candidates very low.

Reference Check Step #5: Find out about Strengths and Weaknesses

Here is where you cut straight to the chase. At this point, you want to point-blank ask for reference about the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the day, you need to know if this person will fit into the company dynamic. Being straightforward with this will give you clear cut answers that you can use to determine the final verdict. This is more about identifying growth opportunities than anything else, with the added benefit of knowing your possible future employee better.

A candidate's work character is just as important as their work history.

Reference check candidate personalities

Reference Check Step #6: Don't Overlook Behaviour

Here is where you cut straight to the chase. At this point, you want to point-blank ask for reference about the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the day, you need to know if this person will fit into the company dynamic. Being straightforward with this will give you clear cut answers that you can use to determine the final verdict. This is more about identifying growth opportunities than anything else, with the added benefit of knowing your possible future employee better.

Reference Checks Vs. Employment Verifications: Weighing Your Options

Reference Checks Vs. Employment Verification

Reference Checks Vs. Employment Verifications: Weighing Your Options

“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”

- Milton Berle, American comedian

If you have ever been involved in the recruitment process, you might have heard the terms reference checking and employment verification being used interchangeably. However, this is a common misconception. While both can be used to verify an employee or candidate’s employment history, they are vastly different in how they are carried out. Quite simply, reference checks have more versatility to them. In this blog, we will explore what these two modes of verification are, how they function and how you as an employer can use them to leverage the best results.

What is Reference Checking?

A reference check comes as part of a standard hiring process. This is when the candidate in question provides the hiring manager with contacts that can attest to his or her abilities. These can be personal or professional, though it is often the latter. Reference checks give hiring managers an idea about the candidate’s work history, responsibilities, performance and even workplace behaviour.

Essentially, you can attain a wide range of information about the candidate that ties into their physical performance and work history as well as abstract metrics such as behaviour, workplace etiquette, work standards and so on.

What is Employment Verification?

Now, where the reference check allows for a wide range of data collection points, the employment verification is a little more boxed in. This is where a prospective employer or future employer gets in touch with the previous employer. They will then confirm job-specific facts like the job title, start and end dates, the reason for leaving or why they were terminated (if that is the case).

Reference checks give you more room to explore the candidate's skills

Reference checks offer more variety and help you assess the candidate's different facets. This better suits the needs of the modern workplace.

Reference Checks Vs. Employment Verification

Before we get into how you can leverage reference checking; we need to understand the key similarities and differences between a reference check and employment verification. When it comes to a reference check or employment verification, it generally happens over a call, sometimes an email. The recruiter or hiring manager asks questions relating to the candidate’s productivity, communication skills, success points, attendance, cultural fit, and other metrics that point to their strengths and weaknesses.

As we mentioned before, employment verification is a little more straightforward. The line of questioning is a little more limited to the job roles and such. Don’t get the wrong idea though, this is a tried-and-true method that will give you the answers you want, but only for validating that the candidate worked at the company, for how long and at what capacity.

If you’re looking for more of a feedback or review based answer on how they performed and what they are like to have as an employee, then a reference check is your best bet. Having said that, both methods are common to a head with a common obstacle, which is the struggle to get unbiased or full information from the phone calls.

"To improve is to change; to be perfect is to have changed often."

- Winston Churchill, Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Why Is It So Hard to Get Information via Phone Calls?

Regardless of the path you take, as the hiring manager, you will often run into one of two problems. One, you might face time constraints and two, referees may be unwilling to answer. Let’s be honest, calling around about a single employee to multiple sources is a time-consuming affair. Half of the time, most of the referees won’t be willing to speak to you either. This will severely limit the amount and quality of information that you get from these calls.

Another common issue with either process is that traditional reference checks happen so late in the game. Usually, they take place towards the end of the hiring process. By that time, it becomes more of an exercise in futility- a formality. The information you get at that stage won’t make much of a difference unless it is something significant, given that the company has already invested so much time and effort into recruiting said candidate.

Methods for Leveraging Reference Checks

Now that we have a basic understanding of how the two methods function, it’s time to turn our attention to the reference checks. This is the more versatile of the two and can potentially give you a candidate’s full professional history if done right. So, let’s get into it!

Tip #1 Ask the Right Questions

When you’re conducting the reference check, make sure to line up the questions in such a way that it correlates with key hiring decisions. Some of the best questions will challenge what you initially assumed about the candidate’s characteristics during the initial rounds of the interview. You could set them to target specific things such as communication skills, critical thinking and so on.

Use a simple question such as: How well did he or she communicate in high-stress collaborative situations? This will reveal volumes about a person and give you valuable feedback on how they worked in a team, independently and under pressure. If these factors coincide with your hiring values, then it will help you make an informed decision about the actual hire.

Keeping a uniform baseline is one of the best things you can do when comparing reference check data of candidates.

Having a common baseline will help you when comparing data from reference checks

Tip #2 Break It up into Stages

You will want to structure the recruitment and reference check process into several stages. This will help you set a standardized baseline that avoids unwanted bias. It is especially helpful when you have a large volume of candidates to check. There are a few things that we recommend you focus on when standardizing. First of all, the questions have to be standardized. Have a common set of questions on hand that can be asked for all candidates’ referees. This will give you a healthy measure to make a comparison with later.

The next thing you want to standardize is the criteria for acceptable references. At what level or rank should the referee be in the previous company? Are referees outside of the workplace acceptable referees? This will help you cut down on the sheer number of references and focus on the ones you need. It will also set the stage for the next issue, which is identifying the credibility of the referee. Make sure that the information you get is from a proper source.  Lastly, we recommend that you have a fixed time limit for the amount of time you dedicate for each reference check. As we mentioned before, it can be a time-consuming process. So, make it count!

Tip #3 Do It Early in the Process

It may be an outdated practice to have reference checks done towards the end of the recruitment process, yet it is still common. It is a common misconception that this is just for verification purposes, therefore it can be done at the end as it doesn’t yield much information. However, a reference check can raise major red flags when done right and does factor into the final hiring decision.

The best time to do it is immediately after the first few rounds of the interview. Do it before you invest too much time and effort into any one candidate. It will tell you if it is worth pursuing. You can also do it intermittently throughout the process to verify and investigate the candidate’s claims as the recruitment process goes on. The point is to catch any red flags early on, or as soon as possible.

Tip #4 Automation is Your Best Friend

Phone calls are the traditional method of doing these reference checks, however, automated reference checking is far better. Given the nature of automated reference checks, referees are more likely to answer honestly and fully. Since everything is online, there is not much room for human bias and it’s a massive time-saver for everyone involved. This eliminates the need for the hiring manager to play phone tag with candidate referees and gives you more time to focus on the rest of the recruitment process. This is why we here at Credibled offer you such an extensive, automated reference check!