How to get the most out of candidate references

Recruiters calling references illustration

References are useful resources for hiring managers to make use of. They give insight into a candidate’s skills, experience and reliability. But they are a limited resource, and you can’t expect too much of their time. The questions you throw to them must be pertinent. The aim of the game is to extract the most relevant information that you can. And that’s difficult, not just because references are often loyal to candidates and want to present them in the best possible light, but also because the references themselves may be unsure of what information you’re looking for. 

When evaluating potential hires, it's crucial to talk to the right people. Start by asking candidates to list former managers as references. This ensures you get insights from those who have directly supervised the candidates and can speak to their work performance and reliability. Additionally, request that candidates set up reference calls themselves. This not only demonstrates their organisational skills but also indicates their confidence in the professional relationships they've built.

With the right person on the phone and the right questions at your disposal, you’re all set. It’s important to affirm to the reference that all of their answers will be kept in strict confidence, no matter if they’re positive or negative. 

So, how do you go about it? We spoke to a few of our recruiters to get a better idea of the kinds of questions you can ask references if you’re a hiring manager. 

Let’s start with the questions.

Common questions asked during reference checks

1. Tell me about your working history with the candidate?

“It’s best to start with specific questions about the position you’re looking for the candidate to fill. Give the reference an idea of what the requirements of the role are, and the skills and competencies required.” - Natalie Morton, HR Business Partner

Let the reference get comfortable. Start with the basics, verifying the information the candidate has already given. When did you work together, and for how long? What was the candidate’s title? What were their responsibilities? How closely did you work with the candidate? 

2. What were the candidate’s accomplishments? 

Starting off with softball questions is wise. The aim is to ensure the reference is relaxed while you’re still trying to validate the answers the candidate gave you. You don’t want the reference to think this is an interrogation. Asking about the candidate’s accomplishments gives the reference a chance to sing the praises of the candidate, which is what they really want to do. The reference’s response also reflects on the candidate; it reveals if they initially over or underestimated their own achievements. The significance of this depends on the severity of their transgression. They may have severely over or undersold themselves, or they may just naturally be humble or proud. Either way, you get more intel, which can only be a good thing.  

Louise Cleland Life Sciences Specialist Brunel quote

3. Tell the reference what you need from the candidate. Ask how the candidate shapes up.

Here lies the nuts and bolts of the matter. I need a strong leader who can organise a team to meet deadlines. Is X that person? Can X become that person?

For an easy answer, have the reference rank the candidate out of ten on the competencies you’re looking for. Even if you need 8/10 and you only get a 6/10, the other competencies may balance the scale. After all, it’s hard to pass up a 10/10 leader even if their organisational skills are much to be desired. 

4. What are the candidate’s strengths?

“I always ask how a candidate likes to be managed, what their key strengths are, and for examples of their technical skills and expertise in the life sciences.” – Louise Cleland, Principal Consultant (Life Sciences)

Get it straight from the horse’s mouth. As someone who worked directly with the candidate, the information they’ll give you will help paint a more well-rounded picture. Corroborate the information from your two sources – the candidate and their reference. 

“Don’t just ask about a candidate’s strengths but also their areas of improvement. For example, “Tell me about any areas where you think the candidate could have improved in the position or taken the next step in their career?”  – Natalie Morton, HR Business Partner

frustrated professional

5. What are the candidate’s weaknesses? How should they be supported when they start?

This is a two-pronged question. On one hand, you are made aware of any areas of a candidate’s work performance that need special attention. On the other hand, you can evaluate the full potential of a candidate before hiring them. The simple fact is that if their weaknesses are too big to be ignored, a decision will be made over their suitability for the role. 

You may be greeted with some of the run of the mill answers to this question, such as “the candidate works too hard”, or “they care too much about their job”. It’s important to delve deeper into these answers. Does the candidate burn out form working too hard? Is the candidate often in a bad mood from overstress? The more information you have, the better a decision you can make, and the more effectively you can manage the candidate if you do end up hiring them.

Natalie Moreton HR Business Partner Brunel quote

6. Does the candidate have good communication skills?

“It’s also important to ask about a candidate’s soft skills to check if the candidate is a good cultural fit. For example, “Did the candidate remain calm under pressure or in challenging situations?” or “How motivated was the candidate to perform within the position”. - Natalie Morton, HR Business Partner

Here’s a list of some of the most familiar soft skills:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability
  • Problem-solving
  • Leadership
  • Time management
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Conflict resolution
  • Decision-making
  • Flexibility
  • Networking
  • Creativity
  • Persuasion
  • Resilience
  • Active listening

Understanding the candidate’s soft skills may give you a better idea of how they will be in their day to day. This is important when determining how the candidate will fit into the team and the wider culture. If their hard skills are solid but they don’t work well on a team, it can have an impact on the ecosystem of your workplace. If the reference tells you that the candidate is a good listener, ask about a situation in which that was displayed. Don’t just take the answers at face value; push the reference and test their authenticity.

Workers facing challenges illustration

7. How well does the candidate work on a team?

No matter the position, working with others is inevitable. Teamwork may be more important for certain positions over others, but it’s still a fundamental skill that needs to be checked for every candidate. Obviously, if a candidate cannot work on a team at all, they will be passed over. Judge from the reference’s answer to what degree the candidate can work on a team and see if it suits the role you’re hiring for.

8. Provide an example of a challenge that the candidate faced. How did they fare?

Another character test. Again, the hard skills are great, but who want’s an employee who can’t face challenges? Glean from the reference if the candidate can face challenges, that they can deal with failure and setbacks. In short, find out if the candidate has resilience.

“Resilience has been shown to positively influence work satisfaction and engagement, as well as overall well-being, and can lower depression levels. There is even evidence that resilience can help protect us from physical illness.” – Harvard Business Review

team work corporate

The wrap up

In short, references are crucial for hiring managers, providing insights into a candidate’s abilities, experience, and reliability. To make the best use of this resource, it's important to ask relevant questions that give you the information you need. Even though references might be loyal to the candidate, a clear and structured approach can still provide useful details.

Talk to the right people, like former managers, and have candidates arrange reference calls themselves. This shows their organisational skills and confidence. Ask specific questions about the candidate’s work history, accomplishments, strengths, weaknesses and soft skills to get a well-rounded view of their suitability for the role. Additionally, assess how they handle teamwork and challenges.

By following these steps, you can ensure that references give you the valuable information needed to make informed hiring decisions, improving your overall recruitment process.

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