Reference Checks

The selection of good work-related references is a two step process.  Taking the first step is the prospective employer’s job. Namely, to identify the types of references the employer wants from the candidate.  Generally speaking, the ideal set of references – from the employer’s perspective – would be a former supervisor, former co-worker, and when appropriate, a former subordinate – all of whom the candidate has worked with on a day-to-day basis within the last five to seven years.

The second step is to ask the candidate to come up with the names and contact information of at least three people who fit the foregoing descriptions and to give the prospective employer express permission to contact them.

Once the candidate has submitted his or her list of references, the burden then shifts back to the prospective employer to ask appropriate questions of each reference that are strictly limited to some aspect of overall job performance – and nothing else. Good reference questions are open-ended. For instance, if the prospective employer needs, let’s say, a hands-on manager – someone who will work alongside employees to insure that they’re functioning as a smooth running team, the wrong way to inquire about that particular skill would be to ask, “Would you say that so-and-so is a hands-on manager?” The reference will, obviously, respond in the affirmative because the question implies, rather clearly, what the employer needs. A much better way to ask that question would be like this: “How would you describe so-and-so’s management style?”  By phrasing the question in that manner, it would be next to impossible for the reference to guess what management style the employer needs.

The method we use is to start with very general questions to establish the credibility of the reference. Questions like, “How are you acquainted with the candidate?” Or “Approximately how long have you known the candidate?” Or “What was the nature of your association?  For example, did he work for you, or did you work together?” These types of questions establish the credibility, or lack thereof, of the reference at the very beginning of the conversation.

As the conversation unfolds, more specific questions can be asked.  Some examples include, “What do you think so-and-so’s main strengths were?” Or, “If you had to identify an area in which so-and-so needs improvement, what would you say?” And, finally, some of the most important questions are, “Why did so-and-so leave the company?” Or “Would you hire someone like so-and-so back again?” Finally, the most important question of all, “Could so-and-so have stayed with the company if he had wanted to?”

In a nutshell, the responsibility for identifying the types of references the employer should talk with is up to the prospective employer, not the job seeker. It is the candidate’s responsibility to provide the names of people who fit the employer’s needs. Then, it is the employer’s job to know what to ask!