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Reference Check Checkup

Make sure you're asking good questions—and talking to the right people

When recruiters are conducting reference checks, experts recommend that they talk to professional connections—specifically supervisors; tailor questions to the job being applied for; and ask behavioral-based, open-ended questions.

“Reference checking is one of the most important steps in the hiring process, because it’s usually the only part of the process that involves people other than the candidate [who] can offer pointed, behavioral-specific feedback,” said Ray Bixler, CEO of SkillSurvey, a software-as-a-service talent analytics company based in Philadelphia.

Reference Checking Fundamentals

Remember that all questions should relate directly to the position being filled, and that the same discrimination laws that apply to interviewing also apply to reference checking.

“As with most HR processes, a standard reference checking format is useful. You can easily compare candidates and ensure you are asking the right questions,” said Susan Heathfield, an HR consultant based in Lansing, Mich.

Conduct reference checks on all candidates, Bixler said. Ideally, references should be people who directly worked with the candidate on a daily basis within the last five to seven years. Supervisors are especially useful.

“I usually ask for three of [the candidate’s] choice,” said Stephanie Shemanski, SHRM-CP, HR director at Reading, Penn.-based Custom Processing Services. “If they aren’t diverse enough or someone doesn’t respond after several attempts, I will ask for an additional name.”

Tailor your questions to your organization, said Sheryl Wolowyk, the founder of human resource firm myHRpro, based in Edmonton, Alberta. “Ask questions bearing in mind the differences between roles and organizations. Your position may not be identical to previous positions the employee filled, so listen to what they say and evaluate their comments in the context of what the employee will actually be doing in the new position.”

It’s also important to pay attention to what former supervisors and colleagues neglect to say, Wolowyk added. “If the answers are general and not very positive, or if they are neutral, this could indicate that the employee’s performance was mediocre.”

If companies don’t allow their employees to give meaningful references, don’t let that reflect negatively on the candidate. “In those cases, which are fairly typical, I’ll ask [the candidate] for another reference so I can get additional feedback,” Shemanski said.

Questions to Ask

Ask behavioral-based, open-ended questions such as “How would you describe Jane’s performance?” Avoid yes-or-no queries like, “Was Jane a good worker?”

Steve Lowisz, CEO of Qualigence International, a global recruiting and recruitment research firm, said he lets “the question hang, allowing the reference to rack their brain” and think about specific instances to support their statements about a candidate. “This type of question will uncover what kinds of working conditions are optimal for the candidate, with less of the focus on their quantifiable accomplishments,” he said.

Shemanski said that she asks about communication style and management style by enquiring about applicants’ rapport with direct reports. “Then I ask for their best quality and one [skill] they could improve. One reference told me that a candidate who was applying for a job where being detail-oriented is critical could improve their organizational skills. We were able to circle back to the candidate and ask specific questions about [this].”

Common questions asked of references include:

  • What were the individual’s job responsibilities and salary?
  • Was the individual successful in his or her role at your organization? Why or why not?
  • What was it like to supervise the person?
  • Was the person a valuable member of the team? Why or why not?
  • What unique skills did the individual bring to your organization?
  • What were his or her strengths?
  • What were his or her weaknesses or areas that needed improvement?
  • Was the person ever disciplined, and what were the circumstances?
  • Do you think the individual is suitable for the job being applied for?
  • Why did the person leave your organization?
  • Would you rehire the person? Why or why not?

And one question should be asked above all others, according to Lowisz: “What do we need to be aware of to ensure that we create an environment that will help the candidate succeed?”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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