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Reference Checks

Note: As previously indicated, the following questions can be asked in any number of ways and can be modified to fit different circumstances. Please also notice the following questions almost exclusively ask the reference for an opinion, rather than just a statement of fact.

  1. What do you think candidate’s name’s main strengths were on the job?

Note: If the reference and the candidate worked together for any reasonable period of time—at least six months—one would expect the reference to readily be able to identify several strengths the candidate possessed. If there is any hesitation or if the reference can’t think of any strengths the candidate had, then, in my judgment, the prospective employer should proceed with great caution before making a hiring decision.

  1. Where there any areas in which you thought candidate’s name could have improved—any areas that might have been a weakness or deficiency in candidate’s name’s overall job performance—keeping in mind that nobody’s perfect?

Note: This is one of those rather long questions that can be re-worded to fit the style of whoever is doing the reference checking, but the point is still essentially the same: nobody’s perfect. I’ve long ago lost count of how many references have tried to get away with saying that the candidate had no weaknesses. Well, once again, nobody’s perfect. There’s always something all of us can do to improve. And whatever that something might be, it may be central to the skill set required to do the job to be filled. Another way to ask this question is to say: “If you had to identify a deficiency or weakness in first name’s job performance, what would it be?

  1. How would you compare first name’s overall job performance to others with whom you’ve worked doing essentially the same job?

Note: This is another question that readily lends itself to being said in the way the person doing the asking is most comfortable. Furthermore, this is a question that can be quantified by the reference if he chooses to do so. For example, the response might be that the candidate was in the top half of those the reference has know, or in the top 10% of others doing the same sort of job. This is also an ideal question for a follow-up to whatever rating the reference offers. Let’s say the reference ranks the candidate in the top 10% of people he’s known doing the same sort of job. The next logical question should be, “Could you give me some examples of why you’re giving first name such a high rating?” Usually, references will say something like, “Because he could do A, B, and C better than most.” On the other hand, if the reference can’t give any specifics, that might be a reason for concern!

  1. What do you think motivates first name to want to do a good job?

Note: This is a very good opinion question! And it’s a question that most references will have a tough time faking. Nevertheless, the answer can be quite revealing. Here are some typical responses from references: “He just takes a great deal of pride in his work” or “That’s the way he is—doing a good job is part of his personality” or “He’s anxious to advance his career” or “Money is his primary motivator.” Well, as you can see, the reference’s reply to the question can offer important insight into the candidate’s motivation, either positive or negative.

In Part 4 we’ll return to fewer opinion-related questions and go back to fact-based questions. The idea is to avoid a long string of opinion questions that the reference may grow tired of answering or become reluctant to keep answering!