Don't ever skip the reference check.
References are one the most important and valuable things you'll do during the recruiting process. I'll explain why. The average reference call only takes a couple minutes, but during that time so much can be learned about the candidate. Avoiding a bad hire can save your client tens of thousands of dollars and your recruiting team hours, days, and weeks of valuable time. Small time investment, huge returns. Additionally, relationships can be built, referrals can be made, and new business can be generated. It's one of the most authentic phone calls you can make. It's not a sales call, however it is one of the easiest ways to generate new business in addition to avoiding a major pitfall in the form of a bad hire. Bad hires lose clients. Great hires solidify clients.
You should start every reference by obtaining the name, position of the individual with which you are speaking, as well as ascertain the business relationship between the individual you are speaking with and the candidate for which you are checking a reference. This not only allows you to follow up with additional questions, but it allows your client to reach out and verify the information as well as ask any follow-on questions they may have.
Without further ado, here are some questions that you can ask when checking references.
1. What was it like to work with this candidate?
This is a nice softball question to start with as It gets the individual loosened up and it's a very open-ended question that can go in any direction. Don’t be afraid to dig in to any answer where it may seem the person is withholding information.
2. What are this candidate’s greatest strengths?
Again, this question is a great place to start because it is vague and positive. The individual may reference the person's soft skills or they may get into specifics. If the person goes with soft skills make sure to ask a follow-up question about how they handle their job responsibilities. If the person gets into responsibility specifics, make sure to ask a follow-up question regarding soft skills.
3. What were this candidate’s biggest areas of opportunity while you worked together?
Now that the person has been warmed up, you present a question about the person's shortcomings. This question is phrased in such a fashion where it encourages the person to specifically name the weaker areas of the candidate. This is one of the most critical questions on this list. A good recruiter will not skip this question, nor will they move through it very quickly. When the person does give you areas of opportunity, ask follow-on questions to dive deeper into the individual’s qualifications. Clients respect recruiters more when they deliver the whole truth and do not try to make their candidate seem like a perfect candidate. If you want to build genuine relationships with your clients make sure that you give them the whole story, every single time.
4. What was one of this candidate’s biggest accomplishments while you worked together?
I love this question because oftentimes in the latter stages of the recruiting process the client is on the fence about making an offer or increasing the salary to meet the candidate’s expectations. When you arrive at these junctures, being prepared with candidate accomplishments is enough ammunition to successfully place your candidate. The answer to this question alone is worth the time invested checking the reference.
5. If you could hire this candidate again, would you? Why or why not?
If someone is eligible for rehire they are undoubtedly a worthwhile prospect. If they are not eligible to be rehired, dig into why not and see if they need additional training or are generally not well suited for the role.
6. Why did this candidate leave your company?
This question is a really good one because you can see if the candidate’s story lines up.
Oftentimes candidates will be untruthful about being fired. If you discover that your candidate is lying to you I strongly recommend ending the recruiting process with them. If they were fired, this question will allow you to dig into the reasons why they were terminated and uncover issues that may potentially be deal breakers for future employment.
7. How did this candidate handle challenges?
This question will tell you a lot about how the candidate handles difficult situations and works under pressure. Pressure in the new job will undoubtedly arise as time goes on, do a good job with this question to make sure the person you are placing in the role will be able to successfully navigate the upcoming challenges.
8. Tell me something about this candidate that might not be listed on their resume.
This is a great opportunity to find out about your candidate personally. Do they go out of their way to build relationships with team members? Are they extremely detail-oriented? Are they extremely coachable? Are they really into sports? Are they family-focused? Many of the things that you will learn by asking this question will allow your candidate to become more relatable to your client and oftentimes there will be things you'll discover that other people notice that your candidate may have unintentionally omitted from the interview that makes them a stronger candidate overall.
I've only listed 8 questions that I like to ask for a quick reference, however I highly recommend adding other questions that pertain to the specifics of the position. No matter what you decide to do - do not skip the reference, it will be one of the most valuable investments of your time that you will ever make as a recruiter.
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