Reference Checks


During the past 30 years of conducting reference interviews, I have learned there are a few questions that many HR people consistently fail to ask when checking a candidate’s references. They usually come at the end of the reference call and have to do with one of the key reasons for checking references in the first place.

The first question is, “Can you tell me why so-and-so left?” The next is, “Would you hire so-and-so again? And if so, what position do you think he/she would be best suited for?” And, finally, an even more critical question, which is seldom asked, is “Could so-and-so have stayed with your company if he/she had wanted to?” Asking any or all of these questions is also one of the most important times to listen closely to the way the response is communicated. Was there a hesitation on the part of the reference? Did the reference sound reluctant to answer? Or, worse yet, did the reference decline to answer? The refusal to answer any of the foregoing questions is an obvious red-flag.

I recall one instance where a reference was asked if he would hire a former design engineer again. His answer was, “Sure, I would hire him again!” Then, what would normally be considered an unnecessary follow-up question was asked, “For what position do you think he would be most qualified?” Ordinarily, one would expect the answer to be, “I would hire him back as, at least, a design engineer.” The answer we actually received was, “Janitor.” Really, why? “Because he didn’t do a very good job as a design engineer.” Interestingly enough, all the reference’s previous responses to questions about the individual’s past job performance had been lukewarm, but certainly not negative. Overall, the reference’s answers had described an average design engineer and certainly not one who would have been disqualified from further consideration because his comments weren’t glowing. But the response to the last question was the clincher. He would hire the candidate back, but only as a janitor, not as a design engineer!

Most people who bother to contact references will stop with the question, “Why did so-and-so leave?” To which, they will usually get a response like, “He/she found another job” or “He/she resigned.” What doesn’t happen very often is asking the critical follow-up questions like, “Could he/she have stayed?” and “Would you hire him/her again, and if so, for what position?”

Here’s the catch, it is not unheard of for a poor performer to be given the choice of resigning or being fired or for a terminated employee to find another job somewhere else, so responses like “He resigned,” or “He took another job,” may be only half the story! And that final question about what position the former employee would be hired to do can sometimes be the most revealing. Capable design engineers usually aren’t hired back as janitors. You won’t uncover issues like that unless you ask all the right questions!