8 Surprise-Attack Reference Questions to Amp Up Your Hiring Intelligence


Standard reference check questions have become so rote that I can rattle them off half-asleep. How long did the candidate work with you? What were the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses? Was he a team player?*

The clichés repeat, ad nauseam. Doubtless, some questions are essential. You can’t judge an employee’s performance without knowing what they did for former companies. However, unexpected questions can produce surprising insights, helping you amp up your hiring intelligence.

Try these 8 questions and see what kinds of answers you get:

(First four questions inspired by JayScott.com)

1. Were you asked to be a reference by (candidate name)?

2. What did he learn during his time with your company?

3. If you could give him a single career suggestion, what would it be?

4. What circumstances frustrate him the most?

5. How well does he manage pressure, stress, or crises?

6. (If reference managed the client) How did the candidate respond to your management style?

7. Would you rehire him?

8. Can you refer me to someone he didn’t get along with?

Can you think of any other surprising—but sane—reference check questions?

*This terminology needs to be chucked out of the lexicon. Perhaps “Does he bite?” is a more apt question.

  • Ryan

    8 is just freakin’ hilarious. I love it.

  • Surprise attack? These are the most basic questions you ask when checking a reference.

  • Nice suggestions for getting more out of the oft fumbled reference check.

    I’ve featured your post as one of my top blog picks for the past week which can be found here: http://www.maximizepossibility.com/employee_retention/2008/07/the-rainmaker-1.html

    Be well!

    Chris Young

  • nyctek

    You propose dirt-digging as a defense against bull-shitting. Cute…from a managerial perspective.

    Is number 8 even legal?

  • I do not call for references until after I have conducted a behavioral interview. During the behavioral interview I ask for some details about who was involved in the situations shared by the candidates. I then ask the candidates for permission to contact the people from their responses and their contact information. Those people provide a wealth of information because:
    1. They can confirm or deny the competence that the candidate shared during the behavioral interview.
    2. They are usually unaware of their company’s policy about references and freely answer my questions.
    3. They were not the candidate’s best friend at work, which is the person who is often given as a reference to begin with.

    I like the questions listed above when targeting the candidate’s boss.

    Great article!

    Darin Phillips