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Hiring someone new? 29 questions to ask during a reference call

As a manager, here’s how to make the most of your 15-minute call with a candidate’s reference.

I remember the first time I hired someone new. Talk about feeling like I had no clue what I was doing! I especially felt that way when it came time to do reference calls for the candidates. Having never held a reference call before, I was wasn’t even sure if the calls would be a good use of my time.

Most of all, I was perplexed by what to ask during a reference call. What questions should I pose so I’d actually learn something new about this potential employee?

Over the years, after talking extensively with other CEOs and managers who’d spent years (or even decades) hiring folks, learning from my own trial and error, and pulling from the knowledge of our almost 1,000 members at The Watercooler (our online leadership community in Know Your Team) — I’ve assembled a list of questions for a candidate’s references.

Here are the 29 questions I tend to ask during reference calls:

(I’m generally looking for consistency of answers across references, and if the answers match up to the candidate’s own)

Understanding the relationship

  • Please tell me a little bit about yourself and how you know XX? (How long, in what context? How often were you in contact, etc.?)
  • Do you know the candidate outside of work?
  • What are your overall impressions of XX?

Strengths and weaknesses

  • What are XX’s three greatest strengths and why?
  • What do you think XX does best? Their strengths?
  • Given that no one is perfect and everyone has areas in which he or she can improve, can you describe any areas XX can or should continue to develop?
  • What are XX’s most significant professional accomplishments?
  • What about areas where she can continue to grow and develop? How have these areas changed over time?
  • Often we learn most from our mistakes or missteps. Can you give me an example of a mistake or misstep that XX learned and grew from?

Leadership and conflict

  • How would you characterize XX’s general leadership style? (e.g., authoritative, consultative, task master, etc.)?
  • How would you describe XX’s overall working style?
  • Where have you seen XX be most effective in building relationships, internally and externally? What is her approach? How does she adjust their style to various stakeholder needs and preferences?
  • Can you tell me about a time when you disagreed with the candidate? What was it about? How did the person handle it? What was the outcome?
  • Can you tell me about a time when the candidate didn’t get along with a fellow coworker or client? Why was that?

Decision-making and handling adversity

  • Can you tell me about a time when the candidate had to make a tough decision? What was it about? How did the person handle it? What was the outcome?
  • Can you tell me about a time that the candidate made a mistake / handled a situation poorly? How did they handle it? What was the outcome?
  • What relationship-focused challenges have you observed XX encounter? Did she overcome them? If so, how? Do you have an example of when XX provided constructive feedback to you (and vice versa, if applicable)? Is she receptive to feedback?
  • Can you tell me about a time when the candidate struggled? How did they deal with it?

Internal communication

  • How often and did XX keep her or his supervisors, direct reports, peers, etc. updated? What methods did she or he use?

Overall fit questions

  • What’s the perfect conditions for XX to be at their best?
  • What advice you would give to our leadership team about how best to work with him/her?
  • Would you like to work with / hire XX again?
  • In what type of organizational setting/culture would XX do their best work? Why?
  • How does this person compare with other people in similar positions in your organization or comparable organizations where you’ve worked?
  • Why did the candidate leave? Could the candidate have stayed if she or he had wanted to?
  • If the opportunity arose, would you rehire / work with this candidate again?
  • What advice would you give me to help this person succeed in this role / ensure we work well together?
  • Is there anything else that I should know about before moving XX forward in the process?
  • Thank you so much for your help and insight. Do you mind if I contact you again in case I have additional questions?

Those 29 questions are in my back pocket during a reference call.

What’s in yours?

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.