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20 Key Questions to Ask Candidates’ References

Triumph Business Capital

August 17, 2015

As a staffing agency recruiter, you understand the fallout that can result from an inadequate reference check when vetting job candidates. Not taking the time to do a thorough reference check, or asking the wrong questions can cost your firm in lost business, contracts and goodwill. In fact, a 2013 CareerBuilder survey revealed that 27 percent of employers lost more than $50,000 because of a single bad hire. Not only are bad hires expensive, they are demoralizing. You can improve these practices for better-informed hiring decisions by asking each candidate’s references the right questions. Close the door on low performers or problematic workers before they even get the job.

Some sobering statistics:

  • Fifty-three percent of résumés and job applications are loaded with inaccurate information, according to The Society of Human Resource Managers, ADP and Accu-Screen, Inc., who directed a 2012 survey.
  • A poll of 18,000 job seekers found that nearly 10 percent said they lie – a lot – on their résumés.

How to plan for a successful reference check

A more robust reference check can help your staffing agency learn whether a candidate is a good fit for the job. During the interview process, get consent from the candidate to contact their references in order to ask about their employment history. Advise job seekers that you intend to talk to their former managers and ask for at least three work-related references. Create a questionnaire before calling references to ensure each is asked the same set of questions.

Here is a helpful list of questions time-tested by employer and agency recruiters to elicit a more accurate, multidimensional view of a candidate’s performance and interactions on the job. Clearly, not all questions are relevant for every candidate and references may have limited time, so select the most relevant, high-priority questions for your questionnaire. You may also have others specific to the position or role to add.

20 questions to help you dig deeper with references:

1. What was the candidate’s job title and work duties, and when did the candidate work for your company?
2. Were you the candidate’s manager or did you have a different role?
3. Do you know what’s on the applicant’s current résumé about your company?
4. May I share with you what the résumé says the candidate accomplished at your organization?
5. Who does the person get along best with: subordinates, co-workers or superiors?
6. Is there any reason you would hesitate to place the candidate in a position of trust involving a lot of money, small children or vulnerable adults?
7. What’s the best way to create an environment of success for (candidate’s name)?
8. Was there ever a time that it became necessary to discipline the applicant? If so, why?
9. What responsibilities did the candidate have at your organization?
10. What was the applicant’s work performance like?
11. How would you describe the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses?
12. Is the candidate a hard worker?
13. Was he/she punctual?
14. What was the candidate’s attendance record?
15. Why did the applicant leave your company?
16. If you could rehire the applicant today, would you? Why or why not?
17. What are the results of this candidate’s last performance review?
18. How often did (candidate) get a raise? Bonuses? Perks? Incentives?
19. Do you have any other comments or advice about this person?
20. Is there anyone else I should speak to about this applicant before making a decision?

Thorough candidate research enhances your reputation and opportunities

With today’s online career portals, the Internet and social media, it’s even more important to know how to hire smart. In his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, management consultant Jim Collins says “… every minute devoted to putting the proper person in the proper slot is worth weeks of time later.”