Hiring is no easy task, and finding out if a job candidate is right for your business takes time and a lot of consideration. One of the best tools you have in your hiring arsenal are the questions you ask a job candidate’s references.
Speaking to references will give you an opportunity to learn more about the person you’re thinking about hiring. It will allow you to ask a few questions and verify information the candidate has given you.
If you know the right questions to ask, you can cut right through the fluff and get some real, insightful answers from your candidates’ references. That will enable you to make an informed decision about the person you hire–or don’t hire.
Here are the questions you should ask a job candidate’s’ references:
Ask their references:
1. How do you know the candidate?
Sounds elementary, but you need to ask how the reference knows the candidate. You’re confirming the relationship the candidate has listed for this reference. This is the equivalent of the “What is your name?” question asked at the start of a polygraph test used to calibrate the rest of the responses.
2. When was this candidate employed by you?
Again, this is about confirming the information you already have. Do the dates the reference gave match up with the dates the candidate gave you? If so, you’re on the right track. If not, write down the correct dates and discuss the problem with the candidate to find out why the answers are different.
3. What was the candidate’s job title and responsibilities?
Did the candidate see their job and duties the same way the reference did? There may be a few differences in the answers here. These can include different terminology, an incomplete understanding of the candidate’s role, etc.
4. How was the candidate’s overall job performance ?
You can learn a couple of valuable things from this question: First, you’ll hear about the person’s job performance in the past. Second, you’ll be able to tell from the language and tone whether or not the reference was satisfied with the candidate’s performance. They may talk about specific incidents where the candidate performed really well. They might talk about incidents where the candidate failed to meet objectives. Listen well.
5. How would you describe the candidate’s work ethic?
This question is really good because it’s purely based on opinion. You’ll find out what the reference truly thought about the candidate’s work ethic, and if the reference is trying to ‘protect’ the candidate by giving false answers–“Yeah, I mean, I’d say her work ethic was pretty good most of the time”–that should become obvious. Don’t just listen to what a reference is saying, but also how they’re saying it.
6. What are the candidate’s strengths? Weaknesses?
You need to know what your candidate is really great at doing, and what they’re not so adept at. Asking a reference about someone’s strengths and weaknesses will offer you great insight because you’ll hear what the reference believes is the best feature of this candidate as well as the worst feature. And once you talk to a few references, you’ll begin to see some similarities between their answers. Assessing strengths and weaknesses can be a really telling question to ask references.
7. Under what circumstances did the candidate leave the company?
This is a biggie. Why did they leave? Were they fired, did they quit? Why did they quit? What happened the day they left? Make sure the answer the candidate gave you matches the answer the reference gives. Lying about the circumstances under which they left the company could indicate a lack of accountability and understanding about what they did wrong at the last job. Hiring a candidate like that could only spell problems for your business.
8. Would you rehire this candidate if you could?
After everything they’ve told you about the candidate, it all comes down to this: Would you rehire this person if you could? A “yes” is a good indicator that regardless of any small hiccups or issues, the candidate was enjoyable to work with, skilled, and a good worker. A “no” is a good indicator that you need to reassess this candidate and try to understand why this reference was so unsatisfied with them before considering hiring them.
What NOT to ask references
Many employers have questions about their potential new hires that they are unsure about asking.
To ensure you don’t step over the lines and ask references an unlawful question, avoid these questions altogether:
- How old is the candidate?
- What is the candidate’s race/ethnicity?
- What religion does the candidate practice?
- Is the candidate disabled?
- What sexual orientation/gender does the candidate identify as?
Free speech guarantees your right to ask any question you’d like–and the former employer’s right to provide any answer they choose–but it does not necessarily protect your right to make hiring decisions based on the answers you receive. If you make a hiring decision based on any of these federally protected categories (age, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, etc.) you may fall into legal trouble.
If you really need the answers to these questions, you’re allowed to ask the candidate–preferably in writing. Let them know they are not required to answer any of the questions and that you won’t make hiring decisions based on the answers. It may also be helpful to include the option “I prefer not to say” on every question.
Read more: What to Consider Before Hiring a New Employee