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The Top 5 Reference Check Questions You Want to Ask But Shouldn’t

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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Christy Hopkins – Human Resources consultant and writer at FitSmallBusiness.com. Her opinions are her own. This is an excerpt from a larger piece that initially appeared on the FitSmallBusiness.com blog.

While we don’t like telling people what not to do, we are going to do it here. Remember to NOT ask these questions because they can land you in hot water legally.

1. Why did you let (insert name) go?

This is the number one no-no reference check question. No matter how much you are dying to know, never ask this. First, it’s possibly illegal depending on which state you operate in, and could land you in hot water. Second, you should have asked the candidate about this during the interviews and learned the answer straight from the horse’s mouth.

2. What incident/problem/issue was most prevalent during (insert name)’s time working at your company?

Stick to performance – repeat that in your head. Stick to performance, and do not open a door for a company or yourself to get in any legal trouble while conducting a reference check. We highly recommend using performance-based questions above asking about negative things.

3. Have they ever lied to you?

This should be something you can think to yourself but not something you should ever ask out loud. If you really think a candidate might be lying, give them a test project (paid, of course) or an assessment to complete that is relevant to their skill set (like a Microsoft Excel test problem) versus asking their old employer.

4. Does (insert name) have any home or family commitments that prevented them from doing their job?

This is a question that could lead into discrimination territory (e.g. gender or age). If you are worried about a candidate’s priorities, you should ask them directly in such a way that is relevant to the job, like, “Bob, we need someone who can travel 50% of the time. Are you able to manage that?”

5. Can I see (insert name)’s HR file? 

Never ask for files on a potential employee or access to their past performance reviews or records. There are laws around privacy here, and it’s unprofessional.

*     *     *

There are some important professional guidelines to follow while doing a reference check. While these are not laws, they are more of a code of conduct and following them will get you better results and keep your employer brand (both personal and professional) up to snuff.

Always ask the candidate for permission to check references (and for the people they want you to talk to)

You should always ask your candidate for permission to check references and for the contact information of the people they would want you to speak to. You can ask them for manager references, coworker references, or for at least one from their current role. But just ask them first.

What if you get them fired because you call their current employer without asking? Now, that would be bad! So ask!

Never ask for inappropriate information

You probably know not to ask about a candidate’s religious affiliation, their marital status, or other things that could be considered discriminatory. Beware if the conversation with a reference begins to get casual and they start to overshare. Keep the conversation simple, and stick to your set questions.

Reference should add color to a situation…but not paint the picture

Some employers do reference checks no matter what, even on the candidate that is 100% awesome, checks all the boxes, and everyone likes. And then a reference check goes mediocrely, and they reconsider the offer. In most cases, this doesn’t make sense!

A reference check should add color to a picture that has been nearly completely painted. Go with your gut on your candidate, and don’t make employment decisions solely based on references. In fact, this leads us to our next tip.

Ask the candidate if a reference check went poorly

If a reference call does not go as well as expected, ask the candidate about it. For example, you could call them and say, “Hey, Samantha. I just spoke to Ken at XYZ and I wanted to ask you about a few things he said that surprised me. Are you available to speak now?”

Give the candidate, especially if they are your top choice for an open position, a chance to tell you about the situation the referee disclosed. There are two sides to every story.

If you still feel like you want more information on a candidate, you can also run a background check.

Calling vs emailing a reference check

The phone is generally best if you want to have a conversation with a referee. Email may be OK if you just want a green light, red light response.

If you do email the reference, remember to write a good subject line such as “Quick reference check for Samantha Jones” and then introduce yourself. If you are friendly and honest, you are more likely to get a response. You should also add that the reference can always call you (provide a number and some good times to call) if that is more comfortable for them.

Reference checks are an important part of the hiring process, especially if you have a candidate who is say, 70-80% there, and you want to make sure you can train them. However, reference check questions aren’t the be all and end all, and they do require a professional code of conduct, both unwritten and by state laws, that you should follow.

Christy Hopkins

Christy Hopkins, PHR is an staff writer and Human Resources consultant at Fit Small Business. She also maintains an HR consulting and recruiting firm that boasts over 30 small business clients across the United States.

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