References are often the last step in the screening process before an employer extends an offer. While every company has a different policy on references, most still ask for them. What a reference says, or doesn't say, can sometimes make the difference between getting an offer or not.
Greg Szymanski, director of human resources at Geonerco Management in Seattle, says that when employers contact references, they're looking to determine if the candidate is the person who presented himself in the interview. "Often what's not said is more important than what is said. And hesitations and dancing in a reference's answers are very telling."
The Questions Employers Are Asking
Did he work there, and why did he leave? The standard questions a hiring manager will ask are ones related to your employment. The employer will want to verify that you did indeed work with this reference, the dates of your employment and the reference's relationship to you (boss, peer, etc.). Sean Milius, president of the Healthcare Initiative, an affiliate of global recruiting firm MRINetwork, says employers also want to know why you left. "It is very important that their story matches that of the candidate," Milius says. "If the candidate says it was a 'mutual parting,' but the reference says they were let go or laid off, there will be a problem. The candidate should always be truthful when asked why they left, as the potential employer will check out their story."
How did she perform on the job? After a hiring manager asks the basic questions, she might dig a little deeper into your work performance. Common performance-related questions will cover strengths, areas for improvement, ability to work in a team and biggest accomplishments. Sunil Phatak, director of U.S. recruiting at IT staffing and consulting firm Akraya Inc., says the following questions on both hard and soft skills are also often asked:
- What would you say is his strongest attributes?
- How would you describe her interpersonal skills?
- What would you say motivated him most?
- Would you rehire or recommend her for rehire?
What's he like to work with? Szymanski notes that while work-performance questions provide important insight, they don't always give a complete picture of the candidate. "If you want to know what the person is like, you have to ask questions that get at that information in a different way." For instance, an employer may ask, "Would you trust the reference to watch your children if you were away on vacation?" Or, "Would you take the candidate to dinner at a nice restaurant with your parents/spouse/significant other?" "The more personal/nonwork-related questions are often useful, not for what the reference says, but [for] what the reference doesn't say and/or the manner in which the reference provides an answer or doesn't answer," Szymanski says.
Who The References Are Matters, Too
Sure, a reference's answers hold a lot of weight, but who the reference is can be just as telling to a hiring manager. If the only references you can provide are your mom, your sister and your best friend, it might raise a red flag with the potential employer.
"Most employers would prefer that a job seeker choose a former manager or supervisor as a reference," Phatak says. "This is because managers are usually able to deliver a relatively unbiased opinion and are much less likely to be swayed into giving a positive referral if one isn't truly deserved. A manager is also a good pick for a reference because a positive referral from him will hold more weight than one from a co-worker who is similarly ranked. Job seekers should also select references who worked with them for at least a year, have a good understanding of their abilities and can attest to their positive attributes."
Setting Your References Up For Success
While you likely won't know the exact questions a hiring manager plans to ask your references, you can still prepare them for the call. The first thing you should do is tell your references that they are one. While that may seem obvious, it's not always done, and the last thing you want to do is have your references be blindsided by the hiring manager's call. Even if you've used certain references in the past, don't just assume they'll be available or willing to serve as one again. The best approach? Ask your contacts first before giving their information to the employer.
Phatak says that if you've done a good job of selecting your references, they'll know you and your work style well enough that they won't need any coaching on the answers. He does suggest that you share the basic job description with your references and refresh them on the position you had and contributions you made while working together. "This is especially helpful if a lot of time has passed since you last worked with them. You don't want your references to be caught off-guard and failing to recall what it is you even did on their team."
Szymanski shares this metaphor to summarize the use of references during the hiring process. "Reference checking is one spoke in the wheel of talent acquisition. If you can get as many spokes in the wheel as you can, your hiring will get better. Reference checking is not perfect, but if used in conjunction with other spokes, reference checking can be useful in verifying/confirming what you already know or breaking ties between two or more closely matched candidates."
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