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The biggest mistake people make when checking references

To avoid making a bad hiring decision, ask these eight questions instead.

The biggest mistake people make when checking references
[Photo: jacoblund/iStock]

In a tight labor market, one of the most overlooked parts of the interview process is conducting reference checks. Because they’re done near the end of the interview process, after the decision makers have met and vetted the candidate, they’re typically breezed through, and viewed as something to check off a list rather than a valuable tool to prevent a bad hiring decision.

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The reference questions will vary based on whom you are speaking with; however, there’s one common mistake many have in common: they’re surface-level. Here are eight examples of reference questions that can help to get a more realistic preview of the candidate and avoid making a bad hire.

When was the last time they conducted a performance review?

If conducting a reference for a management-level position, ask about a recent time the candidate gave a performance review and if they had to give difficult feedback. When hiring for leadership positions, companies want someone who has managed the entire employee lifecycle from hiring, training, and coaching to handling tough situations and even terminations.

One of the most underrated skills in management is the ability to have tough conversations effectively, whether it’s putting an employee on a performance improvement plan or letting them go. This question can help the hiring manager gauge how the candidate has handled this in previous roles.

Tell me about the last performance review they’ve received?

On the flipside, depending on who the reference is—human resources or the candidate’s current boss—ask about recent performance reviews they’ve conducted with the candidate. There are a couple of reasons for this: When discussing a performance review, it lays out what the strengths and weaknesses were, and whether they either maintained their strengths or improved upon their weaknesses overtime.

Something else to consider is if a reference says the candidate was put on a performance improvement plan or got a bad performance review, you can ask how they reacted toward negative feedback. If the reference can’t point out one example, it could just be that they’re still bitter about the employee quitting.

What are their training needs?

This question is twofold. If the reference mentions either a soft or hard skill that is a bare minimum requirement expected of all employees at your organization, it may not be a good match. For instance, if effective verbal communication is a soft skill someone in the role must have, hiring a candidate who needs training on that will not work.

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This question can also help the employer create an action plan for once the employee accepts and is onboarded. For instance, this can help best match the candidate to the right trainer or manager who excels in the areas the candidate needs the most help in. This is an opportunity to be proactive, especially in a tight labor market.

For the latest software or process change, how did they handle the rollout?

Ask about a time that the company implemented a new software, process, or tool and how the candidate adapted to the change. Were they apprehensive, or did they lead the charge, investing time to better understand it and help others adopt it? It’s not enough to ask if they experienced change, but rather how they reacted and adapted to it. With the advent of technology, change is the constant, so it’s important to have someone who will jump in and build excitement around it to get others bought in.

Are they approachable?

Ask what their general likability was. Did they have friends in the office? Did they invest time outside of work hours to build relationships internally? Were they approachable?  Did people ask them for their opinion or help often? This question depends on the culture of the hiring organization; however, it can be very insightful if let’s say the organization has a highly collaborative, open-office environment, and the reference says the candidate likes to work in a silo.

What milestones did they help you achieve?

If you’re interviewing a peer or direct report, ask how the candidate helped them achieve specific milestones. How was the candidate at coaching and motivating the individual to achieve a goal?

If the reference is a peer, this provides insight into what type of teammate the candidate would be. Are they going to stop what they’re doing to help a colleague or stay late/come in early to help them achieve a goal? Talk through the various steps, conversations, and emotions they experienced being managed by the candidate. Was a lot of frustration involved, or was the candidate motivating and helpful?

What were their professional goals?

If you’re speaking to the candidate’s boss, and they don’t know, it could indicate that the candidate either wasn’t motivated to develop professionally or that they didn’t share them to avoid being held accountable.

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What advice would you give them at a new workplace?

This question can lend helpful information to help the candidate ramp up faster should they accept the offer. For instance, the advice could have been to branch out and connect with other teams sooner, or as a manger, to deliver more feedback. Hiring companies can use this information to ensure there isn’t a repeated lag in doing these things.


Tom Gimbel is the founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a national staffing, recruiting, and culture firm.

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