A reference check is only ever as good as the questions it includes.
Unfortunately, a reliance on the status quo means that even with the best planning, a reference check can quickly become conversational and lead to the wrong things being asked.
In the best case scenario, this might mean you ask too many questions or focus on unhelpful insights. But there’s also a risk that the questions you ask will head into dangerous, discriminatory territories.
"We work in a busy and fast-paced environment, will she be able to handle the workload here? Is she willing to work on the weekend to stay on top of things or does she have kids that would prevent her from being able to?"
That sounds pretty terrible, right? Alarm bells should ring as you read this. Conversational reference checks can easily lead to questions like this being asked.
So how can we turn this question into something that will deliver insights and avoid any legal ramifications?
We’ve discussed what makes a great reference check, and now it's time to take a deep dive into the best way to structure a reference check question.
How to structure your reference check questions
Using this model, you can build great questions that will grab the attention of the responder, deliver the outcomes you need and keep you out of hot water.
Here’s how we can tackle and adapt the question above with the B.A.C.O.N criteria.
The context of the working environment the candidate will be entering is not necessary. Keep questions short, sweet and relevant by asking only about previous performance and not offering a suggestion as to why you are asking it.
Adapted question: Were they able to manage their tasks and time effectively?
Your questions must be reflective, not predictive. By their nature, reference checks are a historical glimpse into a candidate’s performance. This means you cannot expect references to provide their take on how the candidate might perform in this new role.
Adapted question: We work in a busy and fast-paced environment. When you worked with them, were they able to manage their tasks and time effectively?
Asking questions about a candidate’s personal status (e.g. marital or parental) is a major employment law violation but they still come up during reference conversations. Keep your questions gender neutral and avoid any personal probes.
Adapted question: We work in a busy and fast-paced environment, will they be able to handle the workload here? Are they willing to work on the weekends to stay on top of things?
Great questions incite stories and if you ask something that could be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” you’ll limit the information you receive in return. Keep your questions open and ask for a story about the candidate's performance.
Adapted question: Tell me about their ability to manage their tasks and time.
Adapted question: We work in a busy and fast-paced environment, will they be able to handle the workload here?
We’ve removed the mention of working on weekends here. Expecting employees to work on weekends (or at any time out of hours) is a form of indirect discrimination as it does not take into account the employee’s personal circumstances, such as religious commitments.
If you're not too hungry, you might want to try our free tool Template Builder. You can build your own industry or role specific reference templates using our database of over 300 best-practice questions.