Congratulations! If you're thinking about checking for references, that means you have significantly narrowed down your choice of potential employees. What most employers do at this point is check references and, depending on what the references have to say, decide whether or not they hire.

But that's where they're making a huge mistake. Why? Because the loyalty of the references lies with the candidate, not with you. You shouldn't rely on what the references have to say in order to make the hiring decision. That's why you need to first decide whether you're intending to hire that candidate, then check the references. This step is not to help you decide on the prospect, but to make sure there are no red flags that you missed in the interview(s). You have already built a perception of the candidate. Your goal now is to learn more about her and see if you will find out anything that will invalidate that perception.

Before you call the references

Before you start calling anyone, make sure you get the right references. Ask your potential employee to give you the contact information of someone who was a manager or a team lead. You want to talk to someone who has interacted with the candidate from a similar position as you will.

After you have identified the references, send them an email asking them when is a good time to call. This will give them time to think about what they want to say and how they will deliver the weak areas, if there are any. If you call them out of the blue and they haven't figured out how to say something, they will be more likely to distort the truth to the candidate's advantage.

Making the call

Be sure to ask them first if this is a good time to chat. The last thing you want is to be rushed - and not know whether they're rushing because they need to get off the phone or they want to get off the topic of your prospective employee.
Throughout the phone call, you should talk slowly and be welcoming. You don't want to sound like you're interrogating them. Explain the position that your candidate is applying for and what you're looking for in an employee. Your goal is to make them open up to you - or at least to be honest about the candidate.

Start first by verifying the length of time the candidate worked there and their responsibilities, then drill into what exactly they did at the job, the skill set they had and so on. Once again, keep in mind that the loyalty of the reference is to the candidate not to you. This is their first time ever talking to you. Generally speaking, most people will not lie to you, but they will avoid revealing the bad stuff. So listen carefully to what and how they do and don't say.

A key question to ask is 'Would you rehire this candidate in the future?". If they don't jump at you with a big 'YES', take it as question mark: what about this candidate are they unsure of? For example if they beat around the bush by saying 'Well, now I don't need this skill' or 'I'm no longer the hiring manager', then they are avoiding your question. Chances are they know that you are not asking about their personal situation, but they are taking your question into a different direction because they neither want to lie to you, nor diminish the candidate's chances of getting the job.

Questions to ask

Here's a list of few questions to ask. Make sure to keep it conversational, actively listen and leave room for flexibility. Sometimes from the answers you get, you will have more questions. Also, have your laptop open to take notes during the phone call.

  • How long did she work for you? How many hours a week?
  • What were her responsibilities?
  • How did she do in ______? What about ______?
  • What is her strongest quality? weakest quality?
  • How were her communication skills?
  • Did you ever communicate to her areas of improvement? How did she respond?
  • Did she work better with people or alone?
  • Did you feel that you can depend on her?
  • Why did she leave your company?
  • Would you rehire her?
  • Should I hire her?

We want to hear from you! What are some of the questions you ask when calling a reference?

Want to read more hiring advice for startups and small businesses? Check out A Guide to Hiring the Right People, How to interview and hire junior developers and Hiring for cultural fit .