Knowing how to approach an applicant’s references and what to ask is an important part of a successful recruiting process. Although there are many reasons to check an applicant’s reference, the main ones include verifying resume and interview information, protecting your organization and employees, and avoiding legal problems from poor hiring decisions. The Society for Human Resource Management reports that an estimated 85 percent of large U.S. employers conduct background checks but applicants continue to lie on resumes and applications. If a candidate will lie before they are working for you, what can you expect from them once they are on your payroll? That is one of the many things reference check questions reveal

Why Getting Reference Check Questions Answered is Difficult

Employers can be liable for negligent hiring if they hire an unsuitable individual without a reasonable background investigation and that person harms others in a foreseeable way based on their background. This is a reason many employers simply won’t answer reference check questions other than verifying if an individual worked for them at some point. While it can be a challenge to get answers about former employees from managers other than verification of employment, senior recruiting consultant Dana Holliday of ContractRecruiter strongly recommends conducting thorough candidate research for all hires.

Top 10 Reference Check Questions

When you are faced with checking an applicant’s references, make sure you contact direct supervisors who have worked closely with the individual. Personal references are not going to give you the work-related information you need to verify information presented as facts on the resume and assess work ethic and personality traits. When you have a cooperative work reference on the phone, listen for what is not said as much as for what is, such as pauses, hesitations, and tones with sarcasm, anger, or bitterness. Be straightforward in your request for information, and start by asking for verification of the information about the job the candidate held with the reference’s company.

1. Ask the reference to verify the former employee’s dates of employment, title, and role.

2. What was the candidate’s reason for leaving? Is the candidate eligible for rehire? Why or why not?

3. What was the candidate’s beginning and ending salary, and how often did the candidate receive salary increases?

4. Did the candidate receive any advancements, demotions, or lateral moves or stay in the same position the whole time with the company?

5. What were the candidate’s duties and responsibilities how was the candidate’s work performance, and did the candidate ever go above and beyond what was required?

6. What were the candidate’s strengths as an employee, and how would the reference describe the candidate as an employee?

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7. How would the candidate perform in the duties and responsibilities of the position applied for?

8. How was the candidate’s attendance record? Punctual or any issues with absenteeism and tardiness?

9. How did the candidate get along with peers, managers, vendors, and customers?

10. Ask the reference if there’s anything else to take into consideration before hiring this candidate.

How to Get Real Answers to Reference Check Questions

References may not want to answer reference check questions or more than basic employment verification questions on the advice of their legal department or because of past experience with reference problems. Politely pursue real answers to your reference check questions with good preparation and avoiding closed-ended questions. You’ll get better responses if you prepare a list of probing, open-ended questions rather than simple yes or no questions. If a reference is reluctant to answer, be direct but polite and try saying something like “It sounds like you are hesitant to discuss this issue. Is that right?” and you may at least get an indication of something negative in the candidate’s work history. Use open-ended inquiries when preparing reference check questions to encourage more detailed responses, such as “Please complete this sentence: I’d prefer this employee would have…” or “One thing I advised this employee to do was…” to get insight into the working relationship. Do not expect former employers to answer questions about the candidate regarding religion, sex, marital status, family obligations, or race.

Reference check questions are vital in recruiting and successful hires. Asking the right people the right questions does more than verify information on a resume. Properly framed reference check questions give you more insight into the candidate and reinforces an organized recruiting process.

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