Former employees often call and ask to use me as a reference. It’s not surprising that anyone with half a brain will only use a reference they feel will be positive. But what is surprising is how ill prepared the person seeking the reference can be.
Assuming they’re going to be generally positive, what’s the best way to get the most information out of the references you call?
Describe the job. More than once I’ve had to ask the caller what the actual job was they were trying to fill. Getting a reference should not be unlike a job interview. Tell your reference about the job and ask them to describe specific situations you observed that match the skill set you’re looking for. You’ll get a lot more information that just asking, “were they a good worker?”
Ask open-ended questions. Seems obvious, but most people ask yes or no questions when they call. “Were you satisfied with their performance?” vs. “ What specifically made them a great employee?” the more probing the question, the better picture is painted of your candidate. Plus, the more you get the reference talking, the more likely they might divulge something key to determining the qualifications of your potential hire.
Describe your culture. One of the most important predictors of job fit is the match between an employee and the company’s culture. Describe the culture of your company or team and ask the reference to describe his or her own company’s culture. Are they similar or vastly different? If different, ask them why they feel the candidate would fit into your world. Again, ask for specific examples of the behavior that was exhibited.
It’s unfortunate in today’s world that so many companies prohibit their managers from giving references. They’re so afraid of a lawsuit that you’re often allowed to only give the dates that someone was employed. But if you’re confronted with this obstacle you need to expand the list and make sure you get at least two to three solid references before you hire anyone. The more tools you employ, the better the fit and the more likely you end up with a great employee.