As noted previously, the first step is to establish the nature of the association between the candidate and his references. One of the best ways to avoid talking to Uncle Roy, who’s trying to do his favorite nephew a favor by pretending to be a former boss, is to ask, right at the very beginning of the conversation, relationship questions. (This is an excellent way to start every reference conversation.)
Here’s an excellent question to ask: “I wonder if you could tell me how you’re acquainted with (first name of candidate)?” No matter what the response to that initial question is, an excellent next question would be, “How long did the two of you work together?”
Note: At this point there should be a direct correlation between those two questions and the job described on the candidate’s resume or the job application. If the correlation isn’t there a huge red flag should go up because someone isn’t being honest!
Next, ask the reference to what the candidate’s job title was during the time they both worked together—and what the reference’s title was. Again, see if the responses match the job application and resume.
Now is the point at which to ask the reference what the candidate’s responsibilities were on the job during the time the two of them worked together. This is a crucial question, and, more often than not, it will reveal whether or not you’re really talking to a legitimate reference or not. Why? Because even if good old Uncle Roy has been coached on where the candidate worked and how long he was there, it is very unlikely he’ll know, in any detail, exactly what tasks his nephew performed. If, however, Uncle Roy says something like, “Oh, he handled lots of different projects,” the follow-up question you should ask would be something like, “Could you give me some specific examples of a couple of projects he handled?” Poor Uncle Roy will be lost by this point. And, I would submit, both of you will know it. This is a very good way to determine if references are legitimate and reliable.
The key questions are: “Have the two of ever worked together?” “In what capacity?” “About how long?” “Where?”