Reference Checks


Checking references on everyone, as thoroughly as one would expect on candidates for senior level positions, probably isn’t necessary.  That is not to suggest, however, that a more abbreviated version of a detailed reference report shouldn’t be done on every new hire.  Basic questions still need to be asked of at least one reference for every candidate seeking employment.  A few that are essential are, “How long did the candidate work for you?” and “Why did the candidate leave?” and “How would you rate the overall quality of the candidate’s job performance?” and “Did the candidate miss work very often?” and “Was he honest?” and “Would you hire the candidate back?” and, most important of all, “Could the candidate have stayed if he had wanted to?” All of these need to be asked of at least one supervisor.

Basic work habits should be covered on every candidate for employment.  The higher the level of responsibility that the job carries with it, the more detailed the reference questions should be.  But even for the lower level positions in an organization, fundamental questions still need to be answered.  It’s essential to know if the candidate is being truthful about dates of employment and eligibility for rehire, but the most important questions few employers ask are “Why did the candidate leave?” and “Could the candidate have stayed if he had wanted to?”  An alternate to that last question could be, “Would you hire the candidate back again?”  Some organizations have a policy that precludes hiring former employers back who have left for whatever reason.  When that’s the answer to the rehire question, I always rephrase it to something like, “But if you had your own company, would you hire the candidate?”  Often, phrasing the question in that manner circumvents the stock “no rehire” response.

Many employers, however, will opt simply to do a verification of past employment, which, of course, is better than nothing, but then fail to ask that critical follow-up question about eligibility for rehire.  They will confirm that the candidate worked for their organization on the dates indicated on the job application or resume, but the key questions are whether or not that individual could have stayed, why he left, and if he could be rehired again.

Another useful question to ask is, “If you could hire the candidate back, what position do you think he/she would be suited for?”  Why is that such a useful question?  Here’s why.  Not long ago, I was doing a “short-version” reference check on a candidate for an engineering position.  The answers the reference was giving were, in my opinion, slightly evasive, so I asked, “Well, if you could hire so-and-so back again, what position do you think he would be best suited for?”  The answer from the reference was, “I would hire him as a janitor because he didn’t know anything about engineering!”

The whole point in checking references, either thoroughly or briefly, is to help insure that the best person is hired for the job to be filled.  In the foregoing example, a serious hiring mistake was avoided by being just a little persistent and asking those follow-up questions that sometimes produce the most instructive responses of all!