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Questions to ask when checking references

Reference checks are an essential part of the hiring process and can mean the difference between a successful hire and a poor one. To ensure you cover all your bases, here are some of our top questions to ask when checking references.

Checking references is a valuable opportunity for employers to discover what makes the candidate tick (and whether they’re as great as they seem) by talking to someone who has first-hand experience working with them. Whether it’s a past manager, co-worker or subordinate, successfully carrying out reference checks means strategically selecting the right questions to build a complete picture of the candidate.

We’re well-practised in reference checking – and offer an outsourced reference checking service – so we’re perfectly placed to offer advice to ensure you make a great hiring decision. Here are some of the top questions you should be asking when checking references.

Describe the candidate’s most significant achievements in this role

This question helps to identify where the candidate went above and beyond the standard duties. Candidates who have made lasting impacts in previous roles are more likely to express a willingness to take initiative, be creative, bring in new skills and lead in their new role. An understanding of the candidate’s achievements can also be helpful when narrowing down the shortlist or comparing two promising applicants.

Why did the candidate leave your company?

When carrying out reference checks, it is important to ask tough or sensitive questions, as these will usually reveal more about the candidate and give an indication of how well the referee knew them. Whilst the reason the candidate left their previous role can be a sensitive topic, whether the candidate departed on good terms and left a positive impression or not can be very telling and will highlight any potential red flags. It will also reveal on the best way to retain the candidate in the long term, providing further insight into their loyalty, commitments and motivators.

What is the best way to manage and bring out the best in the candidate?

If the referee is a direct manager, they will be able to give valuable advice from their own experience on how to manage the individual meaning that, if you decide to hire the candidate, you will know how to bring out the best of their abilities. It can also help in the long term with building rapport and finding strategies to deal with any future challenges or conflicts that may arise.

Do you think the candidate is a good fit for this job? Why/why not?

Sometime the simplest way to help gauge a candidates’ fit for the role is by asking the opinion of the referee outright. Whilst this should not necessarily be the deciding factor (as the previous manager might not have a complete understanding of the new role), getting this additional perspective can be useful when weighing up whether to make a job offer.

If given the chance, would you hire the candidate again?

This question is a great finisher to the reference check and ties all the other information together.  Whatever answer they give, weigh this up against the rest of the referee’s responses. Remember, it is all about perspective, so keep an open mind about the answer that is given, but also make a point to look out for reasons not to hire the candidate.

Don’t forget about the basics

In addition to these more in-depth reference check questions, remember to ensure you’ve covered all your bases by including a few time-honoured questions that will provide a broad overview of the candidate, such as:

  • What is your relationship with the candidate, and what was their role in the company?
  • Tell me about the candidate’s greatest strengths and weaknesses
  • How did the candidate work with their colleagues? How would their peers describe them?
  • Did the candidate prefer to work independently or in a team?
  • How does the candidate handle pressure?

Finally, when all the reference check questions have been answered, give the referee an opportunity to add any additional insights or other valuable information they may have by asking, “Is there anything else that you think I should know about the candidate?”. This will reveal any additional information that you may have missed that could affect the final hiring decision.

Ultimately, carrying out reference checks is a valuable stage of the recruitment process, but not always a catch-all solution to making a good hire. If you find yourself still unsure, it’s always a good idea to seek a second opinion from your recruitment agency. For more advice on conducting reference checks, or information on our outsourced reference checking or general recruitment support services, the team at Harrison McMillan is here to help.

We pride ourselves on being specialists in recruitment, with our unique pay-as-you-go outsourced recruitment services. Contact us for more information.

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