One of the keys to successful reference checking is to phrase questions so they relate to some aspect of job performance – and nothing else.  Why?  Because, if the question has nothing to do with job performance, it’s really none of the prospective employer’s business!

How the questions are phrased is also important.  Care needs to be exercised to make sure leading questions aren’t asked.  Here’s an example of how not to do it: “So, would you say the candidate’s overall job performance was good?”  While it isn’t a leading question in the strictest sense, it nearly is.  A far better way to phrase the question would have been to say, “So, how would you describe so-and-so’s overall job performance?”  By not offering up a possible response, the reference is put in the position of thinking more carefully about the response.

Another, even more leading question is, “Would you describe him as a ‘hands-on’ manager?”  While not quite saying so, it is fairly obvious what the prospective employer is looking for in a new hire – a hands-on manager!  A far more instructive way to ask the question would be to ask, “How would you describe so-and-so’s management style?”  The question is so open-ended that it would almost be impossible for the reference to second-guess the hoped-for response.  Open-ended questions make so much more sense if, in fact, the prospective employer is actually looking for an objective assessment of the candidate’s overall job performance and management style.

Making the point even more clearly, 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, some employers will ask questions like, “How good do you think he was at statistical analysis of current data?”  Not only has the key skill the successful candidate needs been identified, but the phraseology of the question comes very close to suggesting the nature of the desired response.  It would be far more useful to ask, “What do you think so-and-so’s main strength was?” and let the reference come up with a response without any prompting!

The reverse is also true in terms of identifying possible weaknesses in the candidate’s job performance.  The natural response from a majority of references is to say something like, “Oh, he really didn’t have any weaknesses.  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 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 so-and-so’s job performance, what would you say?”

The point in conducting a reference check 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 is so important.