References make a great deal of sense when evaluating candidates. If the candidate wasn’t a referral from an existing employee, you want to know how they work and what previous co-workers feel about them. You get that through references. Right?
Well, yes. But there’s always been an elephant in the room: typically references are provided directly by the candidates. Who’s going to offer up a name of someone who might speak ill of them? And even if the company asks for a previous manager, oftentimes a candidate may -- gasp! -- lie and list a former colleague, then simply tell them to say they were said candidate’s manager. Savvy hiring managers know references are not always all they're cracked up to be but what can you do about it? Candidates are pre-disposed to present themselves in the best light and the power of a hiring manager to probe into their professional past is limited. As a result of this problem, there have been different hot takes in recent years about ending the idea of reference checks. Some even ask, “Do employers even check your references?” The short answer to that second question is yes: about 8 in 10 HR professionals will check references but the larger question about the efficacy of this practice remains.
However, for the moment the practice of checking references before making a hiring decision is here to stay. So if you're going to pick up the phone and track down a reference, make sure you know the best questions to ask in order to get the most out of the conversation that you can.
Questions to ask of references
Let's get down to it. Before you start reference checking, take a minute to think about these key questions:
- Can you verify the candidate’s title, pay, and responsibilities? This sets a benchmark for how well the reference knows the candidate. It also can show you how honest the candidate was being about previous roles and responsibilities while in your hiring process.
- What were the best elements of this person when they worked with you? This sets a positive benchmark for the discussion. Obviously, this candidate is far along in your process if you’re checking references (very few companies check references at the top of a hiring funnel, because it would be too much work for limited reward not to mention a lot to ask of a candidate), so you’re confident in their abilities to potentially get the job. Hearing that you’re right about certain aspects is a good way to level-set early in the discussion.
- What were some challenges of working with this person? This is a tricky question because it can expose you to negative bias, which can then expose you to analysis paralysis about your decision -- but it’s still important to ask, because you want to know potentially-negative perceptions of a person you’re soon to introduce to your own culture.
- What five adjectives would you use to describe this person? This is a bit of a trick question to see how well this reference knows your candidate. Pay attention to the word choice and how the adjectives relate to each other. See if it’s a mix of generic and specific (too generic might imply the reference didn’t work with the candidate closely), as well as if it's a mix of positive, negative, and neutral words.
- Can you recall a specific project this person hit out of the park? Again, this helps with more specific information on their skills and work ethic. If you're reference checking before a final interview, you can also bring the example up to the candidate and get their take on it, again allowing you to see how honest and aligned the two stories are. Even if you're calling references after the interview, this question is a good one to bake into your general interview process to start with. Odds are, both candidate and reference will name similar projects or events regardless of who you ask first.
- How is this person best managed? This helps you transition information to the hiring manager or to the candidate’s eventual direct boss about the best ways to set them up for success on Day 1, Week 1, Month 1, etc. Knowing how a candidate works best helps you set them up for success from the start.
- Was this person easy to get along with? See if there is an immediate “Yes!” reaction -- which is a good sign for your culture -- or beating around the bush by the reference. Especially in a candidate’s first three months, before the big work really starts to ramp up, how agreeable they are with co-workers will be a huge factor of how they’re viewed at your organization. Make sure this person is capable of being agreeable and friendly (at least if the role requires normal to high levels of interpersonal interaction. You don't need a chatty brain surgeon, for example).
- What type of environment do you think this person works best in? If the environment being described is not your environment -- for example, if the reference is saying the candidate needs a rigid, process-driven environment and yours is more agile, free-form, and collaborative -- then that’s a potential red flag. It's an area you should probe further both with the reference and, if possible, the candidate. Culture misalignment is a key driver of early turnover.
Why should you always check references?
If reference checking is hard to verify and might set you up for getting some misinformation, should you bother? Well, the short answer is yes. Even with their faults, references help give you a real-world view into a candidate's capabilities and past behaviour. And the simple fact is, the more tools you have at your hiring disposal, the better selection you'll make.
The slightly longer answer would be: The important elements of a candidate in the early stages of employment are how well they fit into the culture because none of their co-workers/bosses will have enough work samples on them to judge them solely through the prism of the work. These reference checks should lean more towards whether this person is a perceived cultural fit; that makes the subsequent onboarding process that much easier. And, a bonus: if you gain specific info about the candidate from past co-workers during reference checks -- for example, let’s say they’re really into professional basketball -- then you can even customize the onboarding process around basketball, their favorite team, giving them a hat/jersey from that team, etc.
And keep in mind, a mix of personal, academic, or professional references can help too if a candidate has been out of the workforce for a while or is moving from a different country where calling a professional reference at the right time zone might be a challenge. The point is to simply talk to someone who has a different vantage point of your potential hire and take that information (sometimes with a grain of salt) into account along with your other hiring tools. Reference discussions should inform you about whether the candidate will do the work, how hard they’ll work at the work, and how positive an impact on your culture they will have.