Andrea Doven on How to Check References

The hiring process is quite a process of data gathering and due diligence. Reference checking can be a gold mine IF, I repeat IF you do it right. The only reason you have been given this reference by the candidate is because they are set up to give nothing short of a glowing report. Your job is to find something about the person you don’t already know, surprise the reference, find the small blade of grass and pull on it.

After years of doing this, I have found that the below questions in the below order can really help you gain a clearer picture of your candidate.

1) WHAT ROLE OR POSITION DID THE PERSON HAVE AT THAT TIME AND WHAT WAS YOUR POSITION IN RELATION TO THE CANDIDATE?
Key question. You need to know exactly what the person’s job was, and understanding the relationship is key. You might assume that the reference managed them or that the applicant was doing a similar job to what they are applying for. Many times, I find that the person was in some other unrelated position.

For example, I was hiring an HR manager and the reference tells me that they were a sales manager in the same company and this person didn’t report to them as the candidate was a receptionist but did a perfect job routing calls. I thanked them and asked the candidate for another reference… someone they reported to and in a job that was similar to the one being applied for. You want the right reference.

2) HOW LONG DID THIS PERSON WORK FOR YOU AND WHICH YEARS?
This starts to give you more reality. You will obviously listen more closely to someone who has worked over 5 years with this person and less if the relationship was 6 months.

3) WHAT WAS THE REASON FOR LEAVING?
This always surprises people. They never know what to say. You have already gotten an answer from your candidate; now you’re cross checking! Just ask the question, sit back, be quiet and listen.

4) WHAT WERE THE DUTIES AND FUNCTIONS – EXPLAIN IN DETAIL HOW THEY FUNCTIONED AND WHAT THEY DID ON A DAY TO DAY BASIS.
This question is key. Job titles can be deceiving. You really shouldn’t care about the job title, as it can mean so many things. You need to know what this person did exactly, day to day. You will then get a more accurate picture of their experience.

Job titles are so general and are not the same in every company.

I had a gal who was a Human Resources Director and all she did daily was payroll and onboarding of new employees. I had another gal with the same title who recruited, handled performance reviews, and much more. Asking this question is a great tool to get the real picture of a person’s experience level.

In an interview, most applicants will nod their head yes and tell you they can do this and that. Here is where you find out what they have actually done and where their experience actually lies.

5) HOW MANY PEOPLE REPORTED TO THIS PERSON IF ANY?
I like to know if they managed people and if so how many. It gives a better picture of their responsibility level.

6) WHAT WERE THEY VERY GOOD AT BEST QUALITIES?
This is a great question. You will understand more about your candidates here. If you hear from 3-4 references and each give similar answers, then you now have an even better picture.

7) IF YOU LOOKED BACK AT THE ENTIRE TIME YOU WORKED WITH THE PERSON, WHAT IS YOUR NUMBER ONE MEMORY THAT STANDS OUT AS THE MOST POSITIVE MOMENT WHERE THAT PERSON REALLY SHINED, SOMETHING THEY DID THAT STOOD OUT.
You will always get a little story that gives you better insight into your candidate, asking this question really helps.

8) WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THEIR WEAK POINT?
Rarely do I hear, “none.” But if I do, I reply with, “we are really close to making an offer, this will in no way hinder our decision, everyone has strong and weak points, we would just like to get an idea of what we might run into in the future with this person.”
9) WE ARE LOOKING TO HIRE X IN THE ROLE OF X. IN THIS ROLE, SHE/HE WOULD BE RESPONSIBLE FOR X. ANY REASON TO BELIEVE HE/SHE WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO DO THE JOB WELL? DO YOU BELIEVE IT TO BE A GOOD FIT?
Now you are asking for their help, and by this point, they will want to help you make the right decision.

Important overall note here: When checking a reference, you really need to listen. You need to ask the question and be quiet. Don’t sell, don’t try to be interesting, simply ask your questions, be quiet and let them talk. Allow an awkward silence to occur.

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Andrea DovenAndrea Doven is a hiring expert with over 20 years experience in human resources and recruiting.

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