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Her resume was the best of the bunch. And she aced the interview. But how well do you really know the applicant you’re about to hire? Mistakes are costly, so getting a complete picture of an applicant before you make an offer is critical. References can provide feedback that you probably won’t find in a resume or discover during an interview. To have a conversation that will yield real insight, make your questions count. Here’s how.

1. Start with the basics.

Okay, first things first. Has the person you’re considering for employment been completely honest with you? Checking references can help you figure that out. After you introduce yourself and confirm who you’re talking to, you’ll want to verify information that your candidate has provided—job role, start and stop dates, and, if you’re speaking with a manager, salary. You’ll also want to understand if you’re speaking with a manager, a peer, or a direct report.

Some important introductory questions:

  • When did you work together? (This will help you confirm work dates and whether or not this reference is a relevant one.)
  • Are the job title and job description I have accurate?
  • Were you involved in the candidate’s hiring?
  • Would you rehire the candidate if the opportunity arose?

2. Understand past performance.

A lot of people conducting reference checks stop with the basics. And that’s too bad. Because your real goal during any reference check is to learn as much as you can about the candidate’s skills and abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and whether or not this candidate will be a good fit for the job, the team, the department, and your organization.

Dig a little deeper into your candidate’s past performance by using behavioral questions. Verifying what the candidate accomplished is important, but you’ll also want to understand how she accomplished it. Your questions will vary, of course, depending on the role you’re hiring for, but a good rule of thumb is to pose a few questions that require more than a yes or no answer.

Here are five ways you can ask questions that will reveal new insights about your potential hire. Always try to be as job-specific as possible. And remember, give the reference time to respond!

Want to know if a marketing candidate gets along well with others?
Ask how the candidate was able to collaborate successfully with her peers.

Want to know if a customer-service candidate is even-tempered?
Ask how he typically handled an angry customer.

Want to know if a project manager candidate can manage conflict?
Ask how a candidate helped team members come to agreement.

Want to know if a nursing candidate has a positive attitude?
Ask how the candidate communicated with a difficult patient or family members.

Want to know if a candidate for sales VP is a good mentor?
Ask how she helped a direct report overcome a sales hurdle.

3. Don’t forget to explore an applicant’s soft skills.

You likely know what hard skills you’re looking for in a candidate. And you can find evidence of those hard skills on a resume or during an interview. But figuring out whether or not a candidate has the right soft skills to thrive in a specific role isn’t always as straightforward. That’s where references can help—if you ask the right questions.

Many jobs share a similar set of soft skills—things like ‘attention to detail,’ or ‘treating people with fairness and respect.’ Our I/O psychologists recommend five areas that you should try to explore during every reference check. They include:

  • Professionalism
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Problem-solving and adaptability
  • Personal values
  • Leadership and management skills (if applicable to the position)

Developing questions for each of those areas might feel like a lot of work, especially when you begin to apply job-specific filters to each.

Our professionally developed surveys and intelligent software tools can help you speed this process (just sayin’), but if you need to forge ahead on your own, here are some key questions to consider.

Is the candidate dependable, consistent, and responsible?
Does the candidate pay attention to details and deliver high-quality results?
Does the candidate stay up-to-date with industry changes or new technologies?

Interpersonal skills:
Does the candidate listen to others and ask the right questions when needed?
Is the candidate able to establish effective working relationships?
Can the candidate communicate information and ideas in a way that others can clearly understand (a critical skill for many roles—especially caregivers, but also a product manager)?

Problem solving and adaptability:
Is the candidate able to prioritize work and meet deadlines?
Does the candidate know when to escalate a problem?
How well does the candidate accept feedback without getting defensive?

Personal values:
Is the candidate trustworthy?
Does the candidate treat others with respect?

Leadership and management skills:
How effectively does the candidate build strong and diverse teams?
Does the candidate guide direct reports by setting reasonable goals and objectives?
For an interesting perspective on what a venture capital consultant calls “extreme referencing” for leadership positions, check out this post.

4. Think about tomorrow.

You want to hire individuals who stay the course. To do that you need to learn what you can about a candidate’s strengths, and, let’s be honest, no one is perfect – we all have areas we can improve. So ask. You’ll make onboarding far more successful if you already know what strengths you can count on and what areas of improvement you need to tackle in a professional development plan.

  • What do you think are this candidate’s greatest strengths?
  • What, in your opinion, needs improvement? (Another way to ask this: what could the candidate do to perform even better?)

5. Maintain compliance.

Reference questions, like interview questions, should be free from bias. The best way to achieve that goal is to make sure your questions focus on job-related behaviors and that the answers are based on the reference’s experience observing or working with the applicant. Consistency is important, as well. Ask the same questions of every reference.

6. Change your mindset from affirmation to information.

Rather than thinking about reference checking as a final confirmation of everything you’ve learned about a candidate, use reference checking as an earlier step to inform your hiring process. Reference check top finalists and share insights with hiring managers who can then ask more informed questions.

7. Hire superstars!

We know that a lot of work goes into a great hire. SkillSurvey’s library of hundreds of job-specific surveys created by our team of I/O psychologists can help you get real, validated feedback on the behaviors that correlate with job success. Each survey asks references to rate the candidate’s performance across a range of competency areas. Reference feedback is aggregated into a report, with feedback from managers broken out separately from that of co-workers.

References can provide essential insights to help you make informed decisions and put the right people to work for your organization. So make sure you’re getting the right information by making every questions count.

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