WHAT SORT OF QUESTIONS SHOULD REFERENCES BE ASKED?
The simplest answer to this question is, “Always limit what you ask to questions that relate to some aspect of job performance – and nothing else!” After all, the idea behind talking to people with whom the candidate has actually worked is to assess overall job performance. Therefore, if a question has nothing to do with some aspect of job performance, what relevance could it have to a hiring decision?
For example, there is a huge difference between asking the following question: “How would you describe so-and-so’s personality?”and asking, “How would you describe so-and-so’s personality on the job?”
But there is another basic reason to limit questions to various aspects of job performance – what a candidate does on his or her own time really is none of the prospective employer’s business – unless what he or she is doing will adversely affect job performance. Whether or not a candidate goes to church on Sundays has very little to do with whether the candidate has the management style that will fit the employer’s needs – on the job! Besides, asking a question about church attendance could be viewed as violating EEOC rules about making a hiring decision based on a candidate’s religious beliefs or convictions.
So, whenever asking questions about a candidate, remember to include the phrase, “on the job.” Here are just a few examples of questions we typically ask references, “How would you describe so-and-so’s ability to work with other people on the job?” Or, “What do you think so-and-so’s main strength was on the job?” Or, “Would you hire so-and-so again; and, if so, what job do you think he would be best suited for?” While that last question doesn’t include the specific phrase “on the job,” it is abundantly clear that the question refers to an employment situation.
Another reason to limit questions to job performance is that not only are they the most relevant to making the best hiring decision possible, but also they protect the employer from potential charges of discrimination based on some federally protected category.
From any point of view one cares to take, asking questions that relate to job performance makes the most sense. Asking any other questions about non-job related behavior makes no sense at all.