Once you have a reference on the phone, thank them for connecting with you. Tell them you need just 15 minutes and that everything will be held in confidence — you’re not going to share their feedback with the candidate (and honor this, of course). Tell them you’re looking for themes and patterns. You can say, “I’ve almost made my decision. This phone call is a good way for me to confirm my decision and learn the best ways to get the most out of him.” That disarms the interaction and allows for a more candid reference.
Here are the questions I recommend, in order:
- “Give me some context. Tell me a bit about how you worked together. When was that?” You’re seeking confirmation of the dates and reporting structure.
- “Tell me a bit about the role they were in.” Again, we’re validating the scope of the role that the candidate described.
- “As you know, I’m talking to (candidate’s name) about a (type of) role. It will require these competencies (list the three to five key competencies). To begin with, how would you say she rates on those competencies?”
- “What metrics did you use to measure her performance? Was she measured on revenue growth, cost reduction, number of new customers signed, etc.?” This will provide insight into what she was asked to do in that role and how that compares to what you’re going to be asking of her.
- “How did she achieve these results? How was her performance?” Don’t accept generalities; keep digging. You are looking for specific examples.
- “At the time you worked together, what were her strengths and weaknesses?” Define strengths as areas where she was in the top 10 percent. “In what areas would you say she’s in the bottom 10 percent?”
- “How did she compare with the rest of your staff? Was she in the top 5 percent? Top 50 percent?”
- “Tell me about what led to her departure.” We’re looking for why and when she left the company. And importantly, whether the facts presented align with what the candidate shared earlier.
- “What’s the one thing she could have done to be more effective?” Don’t fill the awkward silence. If they say they can’t think of anything, say, “It’s okay, I don’t mind waiting a moment while you think about it.”
- If you’re filling a manager role, ask: “How would you describe her as a leader of people? What’s her style? How did her staff respond to her?”
- “Would you enthusiastically re-hire her again today?” I’m looking for “definitely” or “absolutely” without hesitation.
- “On a scale of 1 to 10, compared to all the people you’ve ever hired, how would you rate her?” You want to hear “8, 9, or 10.” Anything less than an 8 is a red flag, because they’re likely being generous.
Reference checking must be done in a phone call. People will not put negative things in writing, so don’t try to cut corners with a reference check via email. Keep the call to 15-20 minutes and offer to return the favor any way you can.