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Reference Checks

A PRIMER ON HOW TO ASK QUESTIONS OF REFERENCES

 Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to listen to several HR types asking questions of references about candidates being considered for employment.  I must admit that there have been times when the questions nearly made me cringe!
 Here’s how one question was asked, “So, would you say that his overall job performance was good?”  While it wasn’t a leading question in the strictest sense, it nearly was.  A far better way to have phrased that question would have been to say, “So, how would you describe his overall job performance?”  By not offering up a possible response, the reference would have been put in the position of thinking more carefully about the response. 
 Another, even more leading question was, “Would you describe him as a ‘hands-on’ manager?”  While not quite saying so, it is fairly obvious what the HR person is looking for in a prospective new hire – a hands-on manager!  A far more instructive way to have asked the question would have been to ask, “How would you describe his management style?”  The question is so open-ended that it would be almost impossible for the reference to second-guess the hoped-for response.  Open-ended questions make so much more sense if, in fact, the HR person is looking for an objective assessment of the candidate’s overall job performance or management style.
 To ask, “Would you say he was a good employee?” is almost as egregious as asking, “He was a good employee, wasn’t he?”  Why bother asking the question at all, when the desired answer is so obvious?
Continuing, I’ve heard HR people ask questions like, “How good do you think he was at statistical analysis of current data?”  Not only has the HR person identified a key skill the successful candidate must possess, but also has come very close to suggesting the nature of the desired response.  It would be far more useful to ask, “What do you think his main strength was?” and let the reference come up with a response without any prompting at all! 
 The reverse is also true in terms of identifying any deficiencies in a candidate’s performance.  The natural response from a majority of references is to say something like, “Oh, he really didn’t have any deficiencies.  He was good at everything he did.”  Well, considering that none of us are perfect, the reliability of a response like that one is doubtful at best.  To avoid that sort of milk toast response, it’s often far more effective to ask a question in this manner, “If you had to identify a shortcoming, or a deficiency, or even a weakness in his performance, what would you say?”
 The point in conducting a reference check at all is to elicit information that will help the prospective employer make the best hiring decision possible.  Asking a question like, “He was an outstanding employee, wasn’t he?” will never accomplish that goal.  That’s why how a question is phrased to a reference is so important in obtaining useful information upon which an informed hiring decision can be made.