When speaking to people with whom a candidate has worked, there are several questions that teeter on the edge of subjectivity but are still very important in terms of cementing the quality of overall job performance and what’s needed for career growth.

  1. “If I were to ask others with whom the candidate has worked about his or her overall job performance, how do you think they would describe it?”

Rationale:  This question goes beyond simply asking the reference about the candidate’s job performance to asking the reference what others who worked with the candidate might say about job performance!  It is totally subjective, but in asking about other people’s opinions of a candidate’s overall job performance, the perspective has been intentionally shifted to speculation—and in the process, subliminally asking the reference to interject his own thoughts about what others might say. This often results in more insightful responses than asking the reference directly about a candidate’s overall job performance.

If the response to this question, however, is dramatically different from the what candidate has previously said about the same subject, further discussion with the reference is very much in order!  A perfect way to pursue this sort of difference might be to say something like, “That’s really interesting!  Earlier you indicated that the candidate’s job performance was outstanding and yet you just said others would say his performance was mediocre.  What do you think accounts for those two different points of view?”

  1. “What do you think the candidate needs to continue his own career development and professional growth?”

Rationale:  This question has been intentionally placed in this spot because it allows the reference, among other things, to expand on what he said in response to the previous question.  If there was a difference in the responses between what the reference thought and what the reference thought others would say about job performance, this question may provide the opportunity for the reference to explain the difference in more detail.

If, on the other hand, the responses were consistent, then this question could provide very useful insight into what the candidate really does need to do to continue improving – and that could be very important information the employer can use to help make that improvement possible.  And, if a serious issue is brought up, it gives the prospective employer the advantage of knowing before the fact rather than after it!