Reference Checks


One of the problems many recent college graduates face is not being able to provide a prospective employer with work-related references. Why? Because they’ve never really had a full-time job, beyond a brief summer or part-time job during college. So, what is a prospective employer to do if checking references is part of the employee selection process? How do you evaluate past job performance if the candidate has never really had a job before?

The way to approach reference checking under these circumstances is to change the focus of the exercise slightly from “past job performance” to “job performance potential.” If the recent graduate held a summer job, the employer he or she worked for should be a good reference. Other sorts of references that can be substituted include a major professor who knew the candidate, a guidance or career counselor who worked with the candidate, or a faculty advisor who worked with the candidate on some type of campus activity.

With the exception of the summer employer, the focus of the questions shifts in the following sorts of ways: Instead of asking, let’s say, the major professor a question like, “How did so-and-so perform on the job,” which would make no sense at all, the question becomes, “How do you think so-and-so would perform on the job, based on your knowledge of his performance as a student of yours?” Another way to approach the performance question is to ask how the professor would assess the candidate’s performance in the classroom: Did he or she take part in class discussions? Did he or she complete assignments on time? Was he or she always on time for class? Then move on to the more speculative question about future job performance.

Questions asked of a faculty advisor, on the other hand, can be asked just like ordinary reference questions. Questions like, “What were so-and-so responsibilities when he was part of such-and-such activity?” certainly make sense. Other questions about the ability to work with others, attitudes, communication skills, while not necessarily reflective of extensive past job performance, are indicative, nevertheless, of future job performance.

The fundamental qualities every employee is concerned about can be assessed simply by modifying the questions asked from looking backward at job skills to looking forward to what job performance will be like!

Utilizing this approach can be extremely useful if handled properly. If an employee who knew the candidate during a summer job can be added to the mix, an even more reliable picture of the future can be obtained. While it is true that people grow, mature, and change over time, it is also true that basic qualities like dependability, work ethic, personality, and ability to work with others can be accurately predicted simply by changing the focus of the questions asked.