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. In “Part 2” we’ll pick up where we left off in “Part 1.”

  1. How would describe the overall quality of candidate’s first name’s job performance? Note: This is one of the most important questions a prospective employer can ask a reference. There may be some confusion on the part of the reference with regard to exactly what you mean, though. I’ve heard every response from, “Do you mean on a scale of one to ten?” to “Overall, I’d say it was pretty good.” With regard to the first reply, I always said something like, “Sure, we can use a one-to-ten scale if you like, with ten being nearly perfect and one being crummy!” And regardless of the numeric response, it’s useful to add, “I’m curious about why you chose (whatever numeric ranking the reference gave)—could you elaborate a little on it?” Regarding the “pretty good” response, a nice follow-up response could be, “That’s great! Could you give me a couple of examples that might illustrate how his performance was so good?”
  2. How productive do you think first name was on the job? Note: The purpose of this question is to examine not only how much the candidate could accomplish, given your understanding of what his responsibilities were, but also to get a sense of how well he could handle multiple tasks at the same time. This is really the first “face value” question the reference has been asked, and it’s one that can be taken at face value. Follow-up questions, depending on response from the reference, could be, “Was he at least as productive as other people in the department?” Or, “Since it sounds like he had to handle multiple tasks, how successful do you think he was at prioritizing what needed to be done?”
  3. How would you describe first name’s attitude on the job? Note: If this question isn’t clear to the reference, you can always add, “What I mean is, was he outgoing, shy, hard to get to know, easy to work with—that sort of thing.” Obviously, attitude on the job is particularly important if the candidate is going to supervise or manage other people. The point is, I’d much rather know upfront that an otherwise attractive candidate could be impatient with subordinates before hiring him, than to find out about it after the fact (and after he’s managed to make life unpleasant for those over whom he has supervisory control). Knowing about the problem before the fact makes it possible to remedy it before any harm is done after the fact!
  4. (If the candidate had supervisory or managerial responsibility.) How would you describe his supervisory/managerial style? Note: This is a particularly important question to ask references. If it’s not clear, you could add, “What I mean is was his style more hands-on, or did he delegate tasks to others, or did he have a more participatory style—that sort of thing.” If the people over whom the new manager is going to have authority function better when allowed to complete tasks without someone looking over their shoulders, a hands-on manager might not be the best choice, for example. On the other hand, if the people to be managed expect their manager to be more hands-on and collaborative, they may feel abandoned if the new manager’s style is to delegate responsibility! The right match needs to be there for a new supervisory or manager to be successful.

In Part 3, we’ll take a close look at more job-specific questions. As the reader will see, we’re gradually going from more fact-based questions to opinion-based questions. As the process unfolds, it should become clear why talking to multiple references is important.