Posted by Robert Half on 15 March 2017
Reference check questions are an essential and vital part of the recruitment process.
Often though, they're not much more than basic cross-checking of things that the candidate said during the interview and career details they put in their CV.
So what are some of the less commonly asked, but still potentially crucial, questions you can ask a candidate's referees?
1. Overall, how would you rank the candidate in terms of their contribution towards the success of the company?
This can be useful if you are hiring for a role that has a direct impact on your company's revenue – such as the sales coordinator or customer relationship manager. Keeping in mind that the referee may not be in a position to disclose actual sales metrics or other financial information, this can be the next best thing.
2. In your view, was their departure from your company more for personal or professional reasons? Or both?
This is among the most important reference checks. Always be sure to cross-reference the candidate's specific reasons for leaving the role. You can sometimes come across candidates who are prepared to bend the truth in this area – for example, saying they wanted a more challenging and rewarding role, when it was really due to personal tension with a colleague or manager. Asking for specifics in this way can help you clarify this.
3. I know that everyone has things that they need to work on. Were there any things in particular you felt the candidate needs to improve?
Any good interviewer will ask the candidate to discuss both their strengths and weaknesses, but this is your chance to get a (hopefully) objective opinion on the latter from the referee. Framing the question in this way – that is, acknowledging that everyone has flaws – can help reassure the referee that you are not out to 'get' the candidate. You could also mention that if there are any areas in which the candidate would benefit from coaching, it would be great to know going in.
4. How well did the candidate communicate with their co-workers/clients?
The candidate's ability to communicate effectively with others is one of the most important factors in their ability to be productive, effective, and to get along well with others in your organisation. This may include communication with external and internal stakeholders, and people with different levels of technical skill and managerial responsibility.
5. Was it ever necessary for you to reprimand or discipline the candidate? If so, can you describe the circumstances?
This is one of those reference check questions that some employers may be afraid to ask. You don't have to be! It can be a useful way to get an insight into key behavioural attributes of the candidate – their overall attitude, how they deal with conflict, whether they are willing to learn from their career mistakes, and whether they have a good moral compass.
6. Did you ever see the candidate step outside their role to help others, even when there was no obvious reward in doing so? How often?
It's also important to dig for the positives. This is a way of finding out whether the candidate tended to act in their self-interest only, or was willing to reach out and help and mentor others. Ask the referee if they can provide of any examples of this happening – especially during busy periods or when a particularly critical team milestone needed to be met.
7. Would you say that the candidate is a good match for the job they have applied for?
If things have progressed as far as a reference check, your recruitment screening process should give you a high level of confidence that the candidate's skills and experience make them a good match for the role. This is simply a way of checking that your own recruitment processes don't have any glaring omissions. The odds are good that the referee will say yes, but it's always good to check, especially if it's a critical role for the company.
8. Is there anything else we haven't discussed that I should know about the candidate?
After you've exhausted all your questions, the referee may still have information to share, positive or negative, that could sway your hiring decision. If not, be sure to thank them for their time.
Narrow your candidate list with these reference check questions
When asked alongside your standard reference checks, these questions can be a good way to further narrow down your list of top candidates and ensure that you have selected the best person for your company and its customers.