Completing verbal references for a new hire is an essential part of the recruitment process, and a good opportunity to determine if a candidate is going to be the best fit for your team. More often than not you will find a referee is ready to sing the praises of the candidate-in-question, which is great – but keep in mind that’s possibly why they were chosen as a referee in the first place!

In order to build an accurate picture of a candidate’s suitability, it’s important to cover off some key reference questions to help tease out whether they’re truly going to be the right fit for your environment. Here’s our top four essential reference questions and why you should be asking them:

The Question:

How well did they get on with their colleagues and peers?

The Reason:
Sometimes a person can be amazing at their job, but not so great when it comes to getting on with the rest of their team. That might be okay depending on what the role is or the environment they work in, but the last thing you want to do is bring someone onboard that although technically competent, is going to cause conflict with the rest of your team.

Asking questions around how a person interacted with their colleagues or the wider organisation can give you good insight into what role they might play within your own team and whether that’s going to be a good fit for you. Strained or poor working relationships with colleagues can be a big cause for concern, so make sure you get the scoop on these interactions.

The Question:

What were their key responsibilities/duties?

The Reason:
You might be thinking what’s the point? Isn’t this just rehashing what you already know? Although the CV may contain all the relevant experience and at interview the candidate may say all the right things, asking this question is a great way to ensure that what you’ve been told so far is actually an accurate representation of what they did!

It can be tempting for jobseekers to overinflate their level of responsibility or involvement in certain duties to make themselves look better – especially if they’re looking for career progression. Getting a clear picture from the referee around the duties and responsibilities is really helpful for figuring out who may be stretching the truth a little and who really does bring the right skills to the table.

When talking with the referee around responsibilities, don’t be afraid to clarify things i.e. “Just confirming that XX was the lead on that project?” to ensure you have all the facts.

The Question:

What was/is their reason for leaving?

The Reason:
This one’s important because once again it gives you the opportunity to match what the candidate has told you versus the employer’s perspective – you may find they don’t always line up!

A jobseeker that’s left a previous role due to performance or personality issues is probably not going to be that upfront about it. It’s common for jobseekers to tell you their reason for leaving is because they are looking for growth and development opportunities, ready for a new challenge or just felt it was time for something new. These are all very legitimate reasons for leaving a job, but if the referee tells you something different to what the candidate did, you might want to proceed with caution. If someone left a job on bad terms and hasn’t been upfront with you about it, that’s definitely a red flag!

The Question:

Would you re-employ or work with them again?

The Reason:
We recommend asking this question towards the end of the reference because it’s a great way to determine how genuine all the other comments that preceded it were. Speaking from experience, there are times where we’ve received really positive responses from the referee; that is until it comes to this particular question. Then the truth comes out that despite all the great things they’ve said so far, they don’t want to work with this person again – understandably this is a pretty big cause for concern!

You might be thinking, why would a referee say good things if it’s not true? There can be lots of reasons for a referee painting a slightly rosier picture than reality. Maybe the referee is saying positive things in the hopes that you will take this person off their hands. Maybe they felt like they couldn’t say no when asked to be a referee, or are worried their comments might get back to the candidate. Add on top of that the typical Kiwi tendency to try to be polite and not ruffle feathers – that’s why you need a question like this!

There can be positive reasons for someone saying no to this question e.g. perhaps the candidate’s skills and experience have far surpassed the job or organisation so re-employing them would be a step backwards. Or maybe the referee recognises the jobseeker’s talents, but they just didn’t gel with them on a personal level – it happens!

Hearing a referee’s response to this question is always telling because rather than talking about the candidate in question, you’re putting the referee on the spot and asking something directly about them. Don’t just listen to the words, pay attention to the tone of voice as well. Probe further if you feel the referee is leaving something unsaid. An absolutely glowing reference can come undone by this simple question, so it’s always important to ask!

These four questions are by no means an extensive list of the things that should be covered off in a job reference, but they are essential for making informed hiring decisions! We always suggest speaking to the two most recent managers a person has had to ensure you’re getting fresh recollections about their performance. You may find a candidate is reluctant to offer up a referee from their current employer, typically because they don’t want them to know they’re job hunting unless it’s a done deal. If you aren’t comfortable progressing without speaking to their current manager, consider making them a job offer that is subject to getting a favourable reference from that manager. That way you give the candidate reassurance that the job is theirs, just as long as that final reference is favourable!

Regardless of the industry sector or seniority of the role you’re hiring for, getting informative verbal references are critical to the recruitment process.

Needing help or guidance with the reference process? Don’t hesitate to get in touch with the team today!

Good Luck,

Kirsty and Nikki

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