Background Checks

Now we’re ready to really get into the nature of the candidate’s overall job performance!  Although these questions are obviously more subjective than objective, they’re critical to an understanding of actual job performance.  To not ask these questions would make reference checking a pointless exercise!

  1. “What do you think (first name of candidate) main strengths were on the job?”

Rationale: This may be the most important question asked of a reference.  This is also the starting point to look for a correlation between what other references have to say.  Nevertheless, if the reference stumbles on this question or can’t think of any real strengths, then that would be a definite red flag.  It’s also important to listen to the response in terms of the requirements of the job to be filled—for example, if the reference says the candidate’s main strength was his ability to accomplish every task assigned to him and never let anything get in his way when there was a task to be done, and you know that the job to filled requires a real team-player, someone who can work well with others to reach a goal.  Even though the candidate might be perfect for a job that requires charging right ahead and letting nothing stand in his way, he may not be prefect at all for the job you need to fill!

On the other hand, if the job you need to fill requires someone with strong leadership skills and the question about main strengths produces a response like, “I think his main strength was getting people to work together to reach a common goal,” he may be just the right person for the job!

The point is that this critical question will provide invaluable insight into just what sort of skills the candidate will bring to the job and how those skills will fit the requirements of the job.

  1. “Were there any areas in which you think he could have improved?  Were there any areas of weakness or areas in which he could have done better, as you saw it?”

Rationale: There have even been instances where I’ve added, “Keeping in mind that nobody’s perfect.”  It’s important to ask the foregoing question in a non-accusatory way, because nobody is perfect.  There’s always room for improvement, even among the most talented, most experienced people!  And it would be silly to accept an answer like, “Nope!  He did everything just perfectly!”  You know that can’t be true!

It’s particularly useful to hear something like, “Well, I suppose he could have better at delegating some tasks to others instead of doing it all himself.”  Now, that deficiency may not disqualify him from being hired for the job you want to fill, but it certainly gives you useful insight into an area in which the candidate can improve – and I would much rather know about it before the fact than hear about it after he’s on the job and the habit of not delegating effectively has become a problem!  This sort of response also gives you a starting point for comparing what other references say in response to the question about possible areas for improvement!

Next time, we’ll look at questions that validate the responses to the questions about strengths and weaknesses.