Now that we’ve discussed how to tell if a reference is reliable, the next step in the process is being able to tell if the reference is providing honest answers to your questions!
The types of questions you ask make all the difference. For instance, a very good question is, “How would you rate the overall quality of John’s job performance?” If the answer comes back something like, “Oh, John was the best employee we ever had,” your next question should be, “Could you give me some examples that would illustrate how John’s performance was so exceptional?” If the reference can’t think of any examples to make the point, some doubt would have to be cast on how great John’s performance really was.
Here’s another way to measure honesty. Suppose you need to hire a real hands-on manager who can get out there, roll up her sleeves, bring together a group of people all working in different directions and turn them into a smooth running team. The question to ask a reference is not, “Is Mary a hands-on manager?” Instead, ask, “How would you describe Mary’s management style?” There is no way references will be able to second-guess the type of management style you’re looking for based on that question.
Now, suppose that you have talked to three references, and all essentially tell you Mary is great at delegating responsibility to subordinates and letting them complete tasks on their own in a timely manner. That could mean Mary is really not right for the job. She may be a great person, but she may not be the person for the job that needs to be done.
Note: This example is precisely why it’s never satisfactory to talk to only one reference and why I recommend talking to at least three references. The object of the exercise is to look for consistency among the comments made by multiple references. That’s how to ensure you’re getting honest information about the candidate.