Questions to Ask Employee References


It’s a fact that you never really know an employee’s true potential or personality until they actually start working for you. The employee could give an incredible interview, you love them; you hire them, and then you discover that they have punctuality issues. GREAT. You realize that because you were so impressed with this candidate you didn’t put much effort into the conversation with his/her references.  Or, you hire another candidate where you drilled their references and they gave glowing results, but when the candidate started, they needed much more training than you expected. The fact is, a candidate is not going to hand you BAD references. That element alone leaves many to wonder whether or not references are a valid source information. That’s why you need to know exactly what to ask, so that even their Mother would be giving you the information you need.

Before we dive in to WHAT you should be asking, let’s talk about WHO you should be asking:

Right off the bat, forget personal, please; it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Generally, asking for 3 references is common but often times you’ll be presented with less or in some instances, a list of 10 plus people they’re comfortable with you contacting. Depending on what type of position you are hiring for, the people you want to talk with will vary. If you’re hiring in IT, the person that hired the employee is a great start. From there, the project manager or anyone that the candidate worked directly under. It’s also nice to get a perspective from someone who worked in the field with them.

Often times being transferred directly to HR can only be good for verifying employment dates and confirming salary (This usually happens when a candidate doesn’t give their references a heads up). You ideally want to be speaking with the candidate’s previous managers and anyone that dealt directly with their job performance.

What should you be asking these references?

Too frequently, employers make the mistake of asking the reference only one question: “What can you tell me about this candidate”. This is way too vague and 99% of the time you aren’t going to get what you need to make a decision.

Before diving into the phone call, you’ll want to find out the person’s relationship to the candidate and how long they’ve known/worked with them. It’s important to know if the candidate worked for this reference or if the reference worked for the candidate. You want to know how closely they worked together and what point of view you will be receiving. You can get these answers by asking “What is your relationship to the candidate and how were you associated at your company”

shutterstock_123203863After this you’ll need to confirm what the candidate’s official job title was and what his/her responsibilities were. There are situations where we’ve seen candidate’s lie on a resume by adding a few extra responsibilities to their job description.  It’s important to figure out what experience this candidate really has and how proficient they were in those tasks. You may also want to speak with an HR representative to confirm dates of employment & beginning and ending salaries, that extra step is important to validating the candidate.

Once you’ve confirmed the basic information about the candidate, it’s a good idea to give the reference some background on your company and talk about what the position will entail. Ask the reference “Based on what I just told you, do you think this person would be a good fit for this position, and why?”  You can go into further detail and ask the reference of some examples of why they would be a good fit for your role.

Depending on the relationship to the candidate, this reference may or may not know of accomplishments he/she achieved while working at their company. A great question to ask references is “Can you name some accomplishments that this candidate made at company XYZ.” If they have none to name, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not a great situation either.

Arguably the most important question to ask when calling on references is: “What could this person have improved on” or “What more could this candidate have done to achieve greater success”.  The worst possible answer to receive is “nothing, they were perfect”. NO ONE is perfect and we all have areas that we can improve upon, if you get this answer the reference is not giving you the whole truth. I truly respect a reference that can give me constructive criticism on a candidate instead of saying there is nothing they can improve on. Getting constructive criticism is not a red flag to a future employer, in fact it’s more satisfying to know that the candidate could be even better with just a few tweaks.

Alternatively, you’ll want to find out what this candidate was good at. Ask “In your opinion, what was this candidate’s strongest quality?” At this time also ask if the candidate received any promotions.

Often times candidates will give one reason for leaving an organization, but the company will give you another. If possible, ask the reference “Why did this candidate leave this position?” and “Would you rehire this candidate?”

I love ending reference calls with “Should I hire this candidate”. It puts the call into perspective for the reference as ultimately, they’re putting their reputation on the line by making this recommendation.

These questions will help steer you in the right direction during a reference call and give you perspective into who you’re considering hiring. Our recruiters are experts when it comes to reference calls and finding the perfect match for your position. You can contact us with any questions.

Salary for these positions is equally important to checking references. We offer a free salary analysis tool that will let you know if your current offering is in line with the local and national averages. Remember, the wrong salary will attract the wrong candidate.


About Gabriella Calise

Gabriella began her career at EDI Staffing in 2014 as the Manager of Marketing and Client Services where she used her passion for social media and technology to connect top IT talent with our client partners. In 2016 Gabriella became the Executive Vice President of EDI Staffing, where she works closely with the President/CEO to find new and inventive ways to assist our clients and candidates. Gabriella oversees the day to day functions of the staff and continues to head our marketing and outreach efforts.

Outside of EDI Staffing, Gabriella teaches Saxophone and Clarinet privately. She enjoys exploring new places and spending time with her family and friends.

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