The reference check is a long-standing tradition in the hiring process, intended to give you a more objective view of candidates than you can gain from resumes and interviews. However, many employers consider the reference check a perfunctory, or even pointless exercise — especially when hiring contractors, since it’s easier to end the working relationship if things don’t work out.
Of course, employers assume that candidates will never provide bad references, so it’s easy to believe that reference checks are biased and not all that useful. However, references should be used not just to confirm the information received during the interview, but also to find out more about the candidate than the interview can reveal.
With a bit of extra effort and some active listening, you can derive more value from reference-checking candidates, including contractors. Here are 12 questions to ask references that will help you make better and more confident hiring decisions.
1. What were the candidate’s responsibilities?
You can check the reference’s responses against the candidate’s resume and any discussion of responsibility during the interview. Ask for clarification if the reference’s information doesn’t seem to match the candidate’s.
2. How would you rate the quality/accuracy of the candidate’s work?
Keep in mind here that references may or may not have been directly involved in reviewing the work performed by the candidate, particularly if they are peer-level references.
3. What was the candidate’s level of independence?
Find out if the candidate was directly supervised, worked remotely or onsite, or required more or less supervision than other employees or contractors.
4. Describe the candidate’s interactions with supervisors and team members.
This question can help you determine more about the candidate’s personality and cultural fit in a team environment.
5. How was the candidate’s attendance?
If the candidate worked onsite but missed several days of work, especially for short-term projects, this may raise red flags that should be discussed with the candidate.
6. How were the candidate’s communication skills?
Good communication is important for any new hire, whether the candidate will be a consultant or a permanent employee. Try to learn whether the candidate communicated successfully at multiple levels within the work environment.
7. What was the candidate’s attitude toward the project or job?
Some candidates may seem enthusiastic during the interview, but turn out to be less than focused or energized when they actually report for work. References can be a valuable source of information for finding candidates whose actual performance attitude may not be reflected in an interview.
8. Why did the candidate leave?
With regard to consultants, the most common reason for leaving a previous position is project completion. But even if the candidate gave this as the reason for leaving, it’s a good idea to check with their references to ensure this is what happened.
9. Describe the candidate’s work ethic.
References may be able to give you a good sense of whether a candidate is an enthusiastic hard worker and a team player, or someone who’s more interested in paychecks than performance.
10. Can you tell me who referred the candidate to you?
It can be good to know whether the candidate was hired cold based on the strength of a resume and interview, or was referred by someone for their previous position. However, keep in mind that the reference may not be able to give you this information.
11. Would you rehire this candidate, and if so, why?
It’s usually a good sign when a reference would be willing to rehire someone who’s left the company. Asking what qualities make them an attractive rehire can help you learn more about the candidate than you might have during the interview.
12. Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the candidate?
This open-ended question can also provide you with valuable information that will help you with the hiring decision.