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what do employers ask when they call your references?

by ALISON GREEN

When you’re interviewing for a new job, the reference-checking process often feels shrouded in mystery: People are talking about you, but you don’t know exactly what they’re saying or what impact it will have on your candidacy.

Let’s demystify the process a bit! Here are 10 of the most common questions that reference-checkers ask, and what they’re looking for when they do.

1. “How do you know this person?” Savvy reference checkers won’t take the candidate’s word for this; they’ll ask the reference directly. That’s in order to make sure that the facts match up – but it’s also because sometimes the reference will reveal that yes, she was Jane Smith’s boss a few years ago but that Jane is also her best friend since childhood. That’s highly relevant information, because it makes it likely that the reference is biased in Jane’s favor more than she would be if their relationship was strictly professional.

2. “How long did you work together?” This is important because someone who managed you for four years is probably going to have a very different type of insight into your work and habits than someone who only managed you for a few months.

3. “How would you describe the quality of this person’s work overall?”This question is a bit of a softball. Most of the time it doesn’t elicit nuanced answers about the candidate’s work – but reference-checkers ask it because occasionally it will result in openly negative information. More often, it can result in an answer that damn through faint praise (like the distinctly unenthusiastic “she was fine”).

4. “How would you compare her overall performance to others you’ve seen doing similar work?” Here’s where answers often start getting more nuanced.

5. “What would you say are this person’s biggest strengths?” This is a good way to get the reference talking in specifics about the candidate’s work. Ideally the strengths that the reference describes will line up with the key criteria that the new employer is interested in – or will help them flesh out their understanding of what the person would bring to the role.

6. “What areas would you say this person could use some help improving in?” Gathering this type of insight is a hugely important part of checking references, to make sure that the candidate’s weaknesses aren’t likely to be fatal in this particular job. But since references may feel bad about providing negative information, savvy reference-checkers will often come up with other ways of asking the question, like “Are there any areas where you think she would need extra support in this role to make sure she succeeded?” or “If you had to pick two ways that Jane could improve, what would they be?” References who are hesitant to give a candid answer to “what are her weaknesses?” are often more willing to answer the question when it’s framed like this.

7. Specific questions about the skills needed for the job. Good reference checkers will tailor their questions to what’s most important to the job. They may also ask questions designed to get at areas where they’re less confident about the candidate’s skills or approach. That could be asking about anything from how the person does with deadlines to how she gets along with others.

8. “Why did she leave her job with your company?” Generally with this question, reference-checkers are just looking to make sure that the answer matches whatever reason the candidate has already given. For example, if the candidate reported that she left on her own, it’s going to raise concerns if the reference says that she was fired. (Typically a good reference-checker will then go back to the candidate with any disparities in case there was a miscommunication or – as occasionally happens – the reference provided inaccurate information.)

9. “Would you hire this person again?” People who have given a positive reference up until this point will sometimes hesitate at this question – which can be a flag for the reference-checker to dig deeper. An even better way of getting at how well the reference truly thinks of the person is, “If this person applied for a job with you again, would be cautiously interested or excited?”

10. “Is there anything else you would want to know if you were in my shoes?” This is interesting question that occasionally prompts really useful information – either good or bad – that hadn’t come out earlier. For example, a reference might volunteer that the person was a good worker but struggled with punctuality – something that might not have been elicited by any of the previous questions. Or the reference, realizing that the call is wrapping up, may want to give a final strong plug for hiring the person.