For what appears to be a simple question, the answer is a little complicated. Technically, when serving as a reference, you should only respond to questions about job performance. Some employers are interested in more than that, but your responses should stay focused on job performance. There are two ways to handle a question that goes beyond job performance:
- Don’t answer it, and make a point of saying that you feel the question is inappropriate because it’s not about job performance.
- Respond to the question within the boundaries of job performance, even if it’s asked more broadly.
For instance, suppose you’ve agreed to serve as a reference, and you get a legitimate call from a prospective employer – just the way it’s supposed to work – and you’re asked, “How would you describe so-and-so’s interpersonal skills?” Your response should ask for clarification, “You mean on the job?” Or, you can qualify your response by saying, “His/her interpersonal skills on the job were…”
It goes without saying that questions about a candidate’s personal life are off-limits. The only way you should even respond to a question about someone’s personal life is if some aspect of it impacts his/her job performance. Suppose a prospective employer asks something like, “Does so-and-so have a drinking problem?” Here’s what I would strongly recommend saying, assuming that so-and-so doesn’t have a drinking problem that affects his/her job performance, “I’m not aware of any outside issues that have had any impact on so-and-so’s job performance.”
Most people who call you as a reference for someone will know what they should and shouldn’t ask, but some will not. From your standpoint as a reference, the simplest thing to remember is this: If the question has nothing to do with job performance, don’t answer it!