There’s no point conducting reference checks if you aren’t asking the right questions. We sat down with expert recruiter Tom Watt to find out the best questions to ask referees.
Reference checks are an essential element of the hiring process, but unless you’re an experienced recruiter, you may not be asking the right questions. Tom Watt, Key Account Manager – Commercial, for Clicks IT Recruitment says the whole point of speaking to referees is to gain a depth of information and true insight into the candidate.
Here, Tom shares his wisdom on some of the common mistakes hiring managers make, and what type of questions you should be asking.
Common reference-check pitfalls: What not to do
Like any part of doing business, practice makes perfect. And Tom says it’s the same for reference checking. Once you’ve conducted a number of interviews with referees you’ll begin to recognise the tactics that aren’t delivering returns. Some of the obvious mistakes that are easy to make include:
- Failing to prepare before the call: Do you know the referee’s name, their title, their relationship to your candidate, and all the other pertinent details?
- Interrupting: Let the referee speak freely, even if you think some of what they are saying is irrelevant. As soon as you cut them off, they’ll be less willing to speak openly.
- Cold calling: Make sure the referees know you will be contacting them. If you want to speak to anyone else, the candidate must make that connection first.
Two quick hacks to make your reference checks easier
In terms of doing the right thing, Tom says both active listening and asking open-ended questions are essential.
Active listening in this scenario essentially means listening to what the referee isn’t saying. “Sometimes it takes a little while to really understand what you’re hearing in a reference check, but I think hesitations and delayed responses aren’t always for the reasons you assume,” Tom says.
“So you have to read into how the referee isn’t answering the question directly, or how they’re not giving you the information you ask for.
“If someone moves the question into a different example, I think it’s more often a case of them having a high opinion of that person and then trying to make sure they reflect that in their answers.”
Then there’s asking the right questions. Tom says it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking close-ended questions that deliver little to no value. “The wrong questions get the wrong answers, so close-ended questions give you closed answers.
“When you ask those questions, you don’t really get any depth of information or any real insight into the personality or the performance the candidate has had.”
By asking open-ended questions instead, you can ‘lead’ the referee in a certain direction and then allow them to answer candidly. With the right approach, they may even diverge into other topics that provide relevant, insightful information you hadn’t even planned for.
Download Tom Watt’s 10 Questions to ask referees for real insight.