Wednesday, 06 October 2021
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person calling a candidates job references
When considering a professional hire, a resume and interview will only take you so far. In order to truly identify the ideal candidate, you will also want to conduct reference checks. Asking the right questions of former employers and others will help you learn more about a candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and other attributes.


Here’s a quick-and-easy guide on how to check job references, including what to tell the candidate, what questions to ask, the best ways to contact references, and much more.


Why Perform Reference Checks?

While calling up references does take time, it’s time well-spent. Here are the main benefits:


First, external observers offer an impartial evaluation of the candidate’s skills and workplace behavior. A former employer has no reason to exaggerate or diminish the person’s abilities, so the information provided can help you accurately determine if the candidate will end up excelling in the role.


References also help you verify the person’s qualifications. Did they perform the duties listed on their resume? Did they work at a company for a specific time period? Do they have the education they described?


Finally, checking references helps identify the best way an applicant learns. By investigating their previous strengths and weaknesses, you will gain a better understanding of how to train and manage the individual effectively.

Best Practices for Checking References

For best results, check references after you’ve conducted the candidate interview. You want to take notes during the interview so you can later ask job-specific questions of former employers.


During the interview with the reference, give them space to talk. Ask open-ended questions to encourage elaboration. While you want to provide some information about what you’re looking for, do not go into too much detail, as you might inadvertently influence the former employer’s answers.


Here’s how to check references after an interview:

Let the Candidate Know

Tell the candidate right away that you plan to check their references. Letting them know before their interview starts helps ensure they answer the questions honestly and completely.


Checking references is perfectly legal. Just make sure all the questions you ask are job-related and do not violate any discrimination laws.


Instead of contacting the references on the candidate’s resume, some employers use a different strategy. They’ll ask the candidate if they can contact their previous employer. Asking for the contact information of specific people prevents candidates from cherry-picking positive references.

Ask the Right Questions

You will want to keep your questions as consistent as possible when interviewing each reference. Doing so allows you to spot any trends in the person’s performance – both good and not-so-good.


Stay positive about the potential hire. Acting uncertain about the candidate can make the other person feel reluctant to share. Instead, start by stating you believe the applicant has been great throughout the interview process, and you just want to learn as much as possible, with the understanding that no employee is perfect.


Questions to ask include:

  • What were their main job duties?
  • What skills and abilities do they have?
  • What management style works best for them?
  • What were some of their major accomplishments?
  • Would you rehire them?

Aside from what they say, also pay attention to what they do not say. Sometimes, employers will give “just the facts” answers, such as only confirmation of the job title and place of employment.


Be careful reading too much into this answering style. Sometimes, it might indicate the employer doesn’t have anything good to say about the candidate, but it could also be company policy to provide these shorter answers.


Try to also ask straightforward yes or no questions to see what the employer really thinks. (“Would you hire them again?” is a good one.)


Lastly, double-check for any inconsistencies. It’s natural to inflate one’s resume but watch for signs of any serious misrepresentations. The most common resume lies include listing a fake degree, extending the duration of previous employment, and claiming mastery in skills. Verify the basic facts of the candidate and their job when talking with their former employer.

Describe the Job & Position Responsibilities

While you want to let the employer do most of the talking, be sure to describe the job duties in sufficient detail. Try to find common areas of responsibility between your previous job and the role you’re filling. Ask the employer to describe how well the candidate met expectations in their former job.


The more thoroughly you understand the role at your company, the more targeted you can make your questions. For example:

  • “This role involves strict deadlines. Were deadlines an important part of Employee’s job, and how well did they meet them?”
  • “The role is highly customer-focused. What is your impression of Employee’s ability to interact with many different clients?”
  • “This role is a manager position, and I don’t see much experience on Employee’s resume. How do you feel they would perform in a supervisory role? How well did they work with their manager?


It’s okay if the job duties don’t line up exactly. Use your description of the job as a springboard to learn more about how well the candidate performed, their work ethic, soft skills, and so on.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to check job references is an easy and important way to choose the right candidates in a job search. The key to success is preparation: tell the candidate you plan to check references, take notes during the interview about their previous job roles, and then use that information to craft open-ended questions for former employers.


References provide a unique perspective on a candidate’s skills, work style, personality, and more. Although it requires some work up front, you are far more likely to wind up with a great hire and long-term asset to your team.

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