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Taking up references


Can anyone suggest a list of questions to ask referees when taking up references provided by candidates who have made job applications?

Apart from the usual "how long have you known the candidate" type questions, I'd be keen to receive suggestions of some more insightful and open questions which have prompted replies of a more useful nature to the interviewing team.

Many thanks, Martin Hughes
Martin Hughes

7 Responses

  1. Measurable
    Ask about measurables in relation to the role and to the individual so for a sales person you might want to ask:

    How often did the individual hit their target in the last 12 months?
    What was the value of their target?
    Was sales the complete focus of the role – if not how many hours did they spend on other duties?

    And so on..

    And generically.

    How many days absence did the individual have in the last 12 months?
    Has the individual been subject to your internal disciplinary process in the last 12 months?

    And so on again.

    This will give you some hard data to base your hiring decision on.

    You might also want to add some questions regarding any competencies required for the position and ask the referee to rate the individual against these.

    Hope that helps.

  2. Information may not be forthcoming
    One thing you need to bear in mind is that, in order to avoid possible litigation over perceived inaccuracies in references, many companies give limited information when responding to these requests.

    In some cases they will only confirm undeniable facts such as “Mr. X worked for us between … and …, and his job title on leaving was ….”.

    Having said that, it’s still worth asking the questions – just don’t hold it against the applicant if you get the type of response I’ve outlined above!


  3. Personal
    Where possible I prefer to take telephone references, and I find the most effective questions are:

    X may be coming to work for me, I’d welcome your advice – if you were me how would you manage X to get the best from them?

    What sort of work do they enjoy and do best, what aren’t they as comfortable with?

    From there you can get them talking.

    On that basis I find the best reference often comes not from their current manager, but from the previous one, as they have the emotional distance to be objective.

    Good luck


  4. References….next to worthless
    Sorry, but in my 30 years of HR experience across the globe, references for candidates are 99/100 not worth the paper they are printed on. In any event, as another suggested, in these days of easy litigation, most companies are reluctant to give more than the simply factual employment statement.

    So, how to overcome? My first suggestion would be that you may want to examine the way in which you conduct your recruitment process. If you would normally expect to get sufficient numbers of short-listed (after initial screening) candidates (probably not less than six), introduce an assessment centre approach, or if you already use one, enhance it to really bring out the behavioural aspects you would have been seeking from the referees.

    A good AC is, in my opinion, well worth the additional cost of recruitment, as it significantly increases your chance of getting a good fit to the profile(s) of the individuals you are seeking. Simultaneously, it increases levels of retention.

    I’ve been designing, developing and running assessment and development centres for 20 years, and if you’d like any further discussion, please do not hesitate to contact me via my profile on here.

  5. Telephone References
    Written references are no where near as effective as personal or telephone references – people are afraid to say anything in writing for the fear of litigation, so you may only get the truth if you speak to referees.

    Ask open questions rather than closed questions, for example ‘could you describe how x performed in their role’, ‘what were some of the key skills x brought to the role’ etc

  6. Arian Associates Ltd
    You don’t identify which field in which you work. References in certain fields need more thorough questioning than others – for example working with children etc.

    At the very least I would want to know the following from a reference :-

    Honesty & Integrity
    Ability to work with others
    Attitude to work & Attendance

    There are obviously many more, but the ones above are pretty straightforward.

    BUT I agree with the comment below about people not wishing to commit themselves to paper these days and if you are in doubt you should follow up written references with a phone call.

  7. dodgy telephone references
    I would steer well clear of telephone references (extremely bad practice), all too often I have had people ringing up saying they have received a reference request but won’t commit anything to paper and then slate the person off, and from experience have found that they cannot back up their verbal statement.

    I have also found that people on the phone can give off the cuff comments about someone and have very little knowledge of the person concerned.


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