AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger

You're hiring for a new position and, after going through hundreds of resumes and tens of interviews, you've narrowed down the candidate pool to just a handful. It's been a long process thus far, and the picking the one to whom you'll extend an offer part should feel relieving — except you feel overwhelmed with decision anxiety because they all seem like great fits for the company.

That's why you might want to reach out to candidates' professional references, who can share more insight on these candidates.

What Is a Professional Reference?

A professional reference is someone who (ideally) vouches for a job candidate. When applying for a new job, a candidate might share a list of professional references who the hiring manager might want to contact with any questions.

A professional reference might be a former boss, a colleague or a friend, though a reference should, ideally, be someone who has worked with this person and can vouch for this person's skills and experiences and share what this person is like in the workplace. 

Why Checking References Is Key

Checking references is key because you can learn a lot about candidates from other people who've worked with them in some capacity before or who know them personally. Of course, you already know what the candidate has told you themselves, and you've probably looked over their resume and cover letter a handful of times by now.

But a professional reference can let you know whether the candidate has been telling the truth about all of their skills, experiences, workplace mentality and attitude. For example, a professional reference can let you know whether that candidate really does have strong second language skills that might be necessary for the job — or if they're decently conversational but not exactly fluent like they'd mentioned (candidates can tend to stretch the truth). This reference might also be able to tell you if the candidate was really earning $80,000 a year and that's why they're requesting a six-figure salary to justify their move — or if they were really only making $50,000 a year.

Most of the time, a reference will share more good than bad (if any bad at all). This is because the candidate listed this person as a reference, so they trust that the reference will speak highly of them. But you can also contact unbiased references on your own by reaching out to professionals at a candidate's former companies.

When to Check References

The best time to check references is only when you've narrowed down the candidate pool. You really don't want to go around making a million phone calls and having a ton of conversations about candidates about whom you're not serious. This is a waste of your time and their references' times, and you might hurt the candidate who perhaps hasn't told their company that they're planning on quitting yet.

This is why most employers only check references for the final candidate or final two candidates.

What to Ask a Reference

The point of checking references is to get as much information that you don't already know (and can't possibly know by asking the candidate themselves) about the candidate. You want to ask relatively personal questions about the candidate's relationship with their reference and the reference's opinions on the candidate. (You also want to be on the lookout for fake references, which can be bought online).

Here are six questions you should absolutely ask a reference when you have the chance.

1. "How do you know this person?"

Always ask the reference how they know the candidate in question. If the reference is a family member of the candidate, they're likely going to offer you biased opinions that you should take with a grain of salt. Likewise, if the reference is someone who has worked with the candidate before but not in the same department, they might not know the candidate's skills and experiences all that well, but may be able to vouch for their character.

2. "What are this person's biggest strengths and weaknesses?"

You've likely already asked the candidate about their biggest strengths and weakness. (If you haven't already, you should.) When you ask a reference the same questions, they'll be able to either vouch for or deny the candidate's strengths and weaknesses. It's a good sign if they give you a very similar response, so that you know the candidate was being honest with you.

The reference might also share more strengths about the candidate that the candidate didn't even see in themselves, or remember to share. And the reference might negate some of the weaknesses that the candidate shared because they were trying to be humble. On the contrary, the reference might share more weaknesses than the candidate told you.

3. "Can you verify this person's employment, job title, pay and responsibilities?"

Asking the reference to verify the job candidate's employment, job title, pay and responsibilities is important. You want to know that they really were employed before under the job title that they shared. This is because you want to make sure that they weren't embellishing their resume or exaggerating their responsibilities so that, if you hire them, they really do have the experience you're seeking like they said.

You'll want to know their pay in case the candidate asks for a higher salary or negotiates with you to justify a move. This way you can tell if they're being truthful or not.

4. "Why would you recommend this person for this particular job?"

Of course, you want to know why this candidate is a good candidate for this particular position. A professional reference might be able to share with you why this job is up the candidate's alley — or, on the contrary, why they don't believe that this is the best job for this candidate, even if the candidate is a ideal in every other way.

5. "What is it like to work with this person?"

Beyond this person's skills and experiences, you'll want to know what this person is like as an employee — a subordinate, a boss, a colleague. You want to know what they're like to work with to confirm that this person fits the company culture and aligns with the company's values.

A professional reference, if he or she is someone who has worked with this candidate in some capacity before, will be able to tell you first hand how this person behaves in the workplace.

6. "Is there anyone else you recommend I contact?"

Ask the reference for another person with whom you can speak for a more detailed background check. For one, you'll want to make sure that there are presumably other people who would also vouch for this candidate. And you'll also want to make sure that you get to know this candidate from several different people since most of these references will be biased.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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