Reference Checks


One of the keys to successful reference checking is knowing what questions to ask.  Many questions about job performance are obvious, but others are less so.

For instance, getting at the real reason why someone left the last place of employment can sometimes be difficult.  The most common response to a question like, “Can you tell me why so-and-so left?” usually will be an innocuous response like, “He resigned.”  The more important, but seldom stated, question is “Why did he resign?”  There are, however, several follow-up questions that can often help uncover more about someone’s departure than a reference would like you to know.  What follows, therefore, are some excellent questions that can be asked in response to a nondescript answer like, “He resigned.”

1. “Could he have stayed on if he had wanted to?” is a terrific follow-up question and, because it’s  unexpected, will often provide useful insight into the real reason for the resignation.

2. “Would you hire so-and-so again?” is another excellent and insightful question to ask as a follow-up.   Another question that can be asked if the answer to the foregoing question is “yes,” is “If you could hire  so-and-so back, for what position do you think he would be best suited?”

3. “Was it a voluntary resignation?” is also a great question to ask because there are many instances where  an employee is given the choice of resigning or being fired!
Any of these questions are more likely than not to produce additional information about the real reason why  an employee “resigned.”

If the person doing the reference checking has built up some rapport with the individual serving as a reference, waiting until the end of the conversation to probe more deeply into the reason for a departure is the best strategy to follow.  It certainly may also be true that the person was simply offered a better job by another employer – and took it!  But the point is, there are many, many instances where a poor performer – or worse – is given the option to resign or to be terminated.  Who in his or her right mind would choose to be terminated when the “resignation” option is on the table?

It’s important for the prospective employer to have as much information as possible about a job seeker before making a hiring decision; and, sometimes, the most useful information comes at the very end of a reference conversation.  For instance, when checking the references of a candidate for an engineering position some time ago, I asked the former employer if he would rehire that person.  He answered that he probably would, at which point I asked, “If you could hire him, for what position do you think he would be best suited?”  The response?  “I might hire him back as a janitor because he certainly didn’t know much about engineering!”

Until that last question was asked, there was no indication that the candidate had performed poorly.  One could have inferred that the candidate hadn’t done an outstanding job, but there certainly was no suggestion that the previous employer “might” hire him back, but only as a janitor.  That’s why probing the reason for leaving is such an important piece of the reference interview!