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Getting the Most from Reference Checks

You’ve reviewed resumes, interviewed candidates, narrowed down to your top contenders, and you’re ready to make some reference calls. But, what questions do you ask?

Before we dig into that, a word on requesting references: typically organizations ask for three references in order to consult multiple perspectives on a candidate’s experience and performance. Asking for three references also provides some leeway in case you aren’t able to get in touch with one of the individuals. Some hiring managers specifically request that one of those references be a manager, as it can provide insight on how the candidate performed from someone who oversaw them directly. Consider if there are other people you’d specifically like to hear from, such as the candidate’s colleagues or people who have reported directly to the candidate to learn about their leadership and management skills.

On the logistics side, make sure to ask your candidate for both email addresses and phone numbers for all references. While we highly recommend speaking with references over the phone, it may be useful to reach out to folks via email first to schedule time. Whether you reach out by email to schedule or by phone first, make sure to let the reference know how much time you think the call will take so that you know that they can be focused during your conversation. A short and sweet, 10-15 minute conversation could be all you need to get a reference to commit to speaking with you.

Context and Background

Reference calls start with confirming who the reference is and their relationship to the candidate. It’s important not to rush these questions. Take time to learn about who this person is and how they have worked with the candidate in order to best understand and value their reflections and insights. Here are some examples of questions to get the call started (for simplicity, we’ve chosen a fictional candidate named Lee):

  • For how long did you and Lee work together?
  • In what context did you work with Lee?
  • Could you confirm your current organization and title?
  • What projects did you work on with Lee most closely?

Remember, the reference check is not an interview of the reference. It’s a chance to confirm what you’ve gleaned in the interview process and/or gain some clarification on things that seemed a little murky or an issue that you perceive may creep up as a red flag down the road. We provide some further sample questions below and recommend being specific and focused in asking a few that feel most relevant to creating a full picture of the candidate you are considering making an offer to.

Role and Responsibilities

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Claudio Fernández-Aráoz writes about how to avoid biases that can creep into responses when interviewing a reference. For example, he suggests avoiding broad questions such as “What can you tell me about Carol?” since their answer “would probably focus on her best or most salient general characteristics (rather than the one most relevant to the job), which taints everything that follows because the referee wants to appear consistent.” Instead, he suggests providing specifics and challenges about the role you’re hiring for and asking if the referee has seen the candidate perform under similar circumstances. With that in mind, here are a few questions targeted to learning more about a candidate’s experience and determining how those may set them up for the role you’re hiring for.

  • What were Lee’s specific responsibilities when you worked with them? What do you feel were Lee’s biggest strengths in those responsibilities? What were the biggest challenges for Lee in that role and how did they deal with them?
  • We’re considering Lee for [job title] and they would be responsible for x, y, and z. Do you think Lee could perform well in this role? Why or why not?
  • In the role we’re hiring for, we are looking for someone who is (characteristics such as adaptable, able to work well in a fast paced environment, etc). How do you think that aligns or stretches Lee’s strengths and areas for development?
  • Are there things that you look forward to seeing Lee develop in future roles?

Working and Leadership Style

It can be informative to hear former managers characterize and describe how a candidate gets their best work done. Additionally, it can be helpful to learn more about how the candidate works with others, as well as what leadership sensibilities they’ve shown. Here are some questions to dig into working and leadership styles:

  • How would you describe Lee’s working style? Could you provide a couple of examples of how you’ve seen Lee’s working style in practice?
  • What are things you’ve noticed that set Lee up to be able to do their best work? (Answers might include working on a team, clear deadlines, supporting setting goals for a project, etc.)
  • What are your favorite things about working with Lee?
  • What are some things about Lee’s working style that you’d like to see them improve on?
  • Can you provide an example of a time when Lee faced a challenge or a great deal of stress and how they handled that situation?
  • (If interviewing a former manager) What are pieces of advice that you have for how to best manage Lee?

Social and Emotional Intelligence

Reference calls are also an opportunity to learn more about how your candidate demonstrates emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage your own emotions as well as the emotions of others. You may find it helpful to ask for examples with this line of questioning in particular in order to get details about how they exhibit these behaviors. Here are a few options to learn more about a candidate’s social and emotional intelligence:

  • Did Lee have to work in collaboration with others to complete a project? If yes, were you able to get a sense of how they worked with his peers/other staff/volunteers?
  • In working with others (peers/interns/volunteers/managing other staff) either formally or informally, what are two of Lee’s strengths and two of Lee’s areas for development when it comes to handling conflict (or unexpected change/uncooperative or unfocused teammates/etc.)?
  • What were Lee’s biggest contributions to the office culture?
  • What is the office culture at your organization and did Lee fit into that?

Space for last thoughts

A good way to catch any blind spots that may have been in your reference check is to simply ask if you missed anything. It can be a nice opportunity for your reference to share any last reflections, something else that came up for them in answering your questions, or an important insight that didn’t get addressed earlier. Some questions you might consider are:

  • Is there anything I didn’t ask about Lee that you think I should know or we didn’t get a chance to talk about?
  • Any last thoughts you’d like to share about working with Lee?
  • Do you have any questions about the role or what we’re looking for?

We hope these questions are helpful as you gear up for your next reference call. We’re also curious about your thoughts on whether these questions have worked for you or if you have others you prefer. Email us at idealistorgs@idealist.org to share your suggestions!

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