Reference Checks

Note: The following questions can be phrased in any number of ways and, obviously, can be modified to fit particular situations or jobs. Generally speaking, I recommend that all the questions be asked in the following order; but the order can be changed, and, occasionally, references will provide information about a particular area of concern even before the question is asked about it. So being flexible is essential.

  1. How are you acquainted with the candidate? (Always use the candidate’s first name.) Note: This is an extremely important question. If the answer is anything other than “we worked together at the XYZ Company” it could be a very short conversation! The response is also an ideal opportunity to check the candidate’s resume to see if he listed the XYZ Company as part of his work history.
  2. About how long did you and insert candidate’s first name work together at the XYZ Company? Note: Some flexibility should be allowed here. The reference may not recall the exact dates; so, in most instances, allowing the reference to just give the closest months or seasons of the year are fine. But, again, the response should approximate the dates giving on the resume. This question also validates the legitimacy of the reference and helps uncover phony references merely posing as a former co-worker or supervisor. A response like, “Gosh, I don’t remember how long we worked together” would make me wonder if they ever worked together at all. This is also why all references should have worked with the candidate within the last five to seven years. Not remembering how long the reference and candidate worked together makes sense if it was more than seven or eight years ago.
  3. During that time, what was your job title? And what was candidate’s first name job title? Note: If, by chance, the reference is really an old buddy from college, this is the point at which his attempt to pretend he’s a legitimate work reference should begin to fall apart. The response from the reference should also be cross-checked with what’s on the candidate’s resume.
  4. What were his primary responsibilities on the job? Note: This is the final question that serves multiple purposes. First of all, the response should validate what’s on the resume. Second, there’s absolutely no way a fake work reference is going to know the answer to this question. Third, specifics about job responsibilities should be pursued.       It’s not good enough for a reference to get away with a vague response like, “Oh, he did lots of different things in our department.” If that sort of response is given, the additional questions that should be asked include, “Well, like what sort of things?” or “Could you be a little more specific?” If the reference can’t give specifics, the legitimacy of the reference has to be put in serious doubt! Frankly, the only way I can imagine a phony reference making it this far is if he’s actually studied the candidate’s resume and has it right in front of him during the interview—and the chances of that are slim at best!

This concludes the initial list of questions that are designed to make sure the reference is legitimate and that the responses are in line with what’s on the candidate’s resume. In the next Blog we’ll start taking up the questions that address actual job performance.