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What to Ask a Candidate's References

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If you’ve been fortunate enough to find a qualified, personable candidate who fits all the right molds of an open position it can feel like you won the jackpot. They interviewed with everyone well, have applicable experience, and can even start when you want them to. There’s just one more step to take: checking their references.

Most employers opt not to call a candidate’s references. And it’s easy to see why; most people you’ll be calling are likely busy, and the conversation can be a bit awkward. But it’s a final step you should take to triple-check your star candidate is a fit for your organization. Here’s how to check references in a way that’s actually useful.

Let your candidate know you plan on calling their references

Tell your candidate you plan on following up with their references, and ask them who they should call specifically. Asking will let them direct you to a former boss or manager who supervised them under a similar role or position, so you can gain perspectives you might not otherwise have.

Actually call and be direct about the conversation

Start the conversation by a brief introduction and then launch into where you are in the interview process. Follow up with a question such as “Is it true you worked closely together? Could you tell me a little about that relationship and how well you two worked together?”

By asking the nature of their working relationship, you eliminate references the candidate is just friends with. Getting specific quickly makes the best use of your time and the person you have on the phone.

Be specific about the role

Tell the reference about the role your candidate is interviewing for. Mention hard and soft skills an ideal candidate should possess to succeed in the role, and follow up with: “Based on these skill sets, do you think [candidate X] would fit in well, or can learn these skills quickly?”

Listen thoughtfully to their answers but take everything with a grain of salt. If a reference says something like, “Well, [candidate X excelled at A, but I would have liked to see him do more of B,” you can work with that information. 

Ask about what you’re looking for

Focus the call on questions that build or expand on scenarios your candidate provided. For example: 

  • What are some of X’s most admirable skills not listed on his resume?

  • How do you think he’d handle new and bigger responsibilities?

  • He told me about this scenario. How would you describe it?

  • Would you hire X again? Why or why not?

Try to avoid yes and no questions in an attempt to give the reference an opportunity to speak at length. Chances are the candidate and the reference will recall things differently, but by hearing both sides of a story you can piece together something close to the truth.

End the call with broader inquires

If the majority of the call is focused on technical and skill-based questions, it’s a good idea to ask about motivation, timeliness, and other broad questions. For example, you can ask about what drives X to come into work each day, or how they approach tight deadlines and big projects. 

Watch for red flags

Many conversations about past working environments can be subjective. Even still, it’s best to keep an ear out for possible red flags.

  • References with sparse specifics: A reference with little to no specifics can mean they hardly knew the candidate, or worse, have negative memories they’re hesitant to share. 

  • References who are too positive: “Well, I’d say X’s worst quality was that he cared too much and worked too hard.” Come on. These references are either a friend and not a manager, or a supervisor with little context.

  • References who are surprised: If a reference is surprised to hear from you, chances are the candidate didn’t give them notice. It may be uncomfortable, but a candidate should always tell their reference they may be contacted.

Interviewing and checking references is a lot of work. That’s why Dominion streamlines the process with an Applicant Tracking Software designed to fit your budget and simplify the application process. See how a customized hiring workflow can benefit your business!


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