Five questions to ask an applicant's references

How to Check for References

One of the most important parts of the hiring process is reference checking. Do you know what questions to ask?

When you collect references on job applications, do you actually check the applicant's references? Believe it or not, many employers don't even use the references that they collect. And, if they do, they don't always ask the right questions. If you want to hire the right people, this needs to change.

Why References Need to be Checked

In the past, reference checks have been little more than formalities. They were once used right before extending a job offer, just to verify that the individual did indeed work for a particular company or hold a specific position. However, times have changed. The reference check is now one of the most important aspects of the hiring process.

According to a survey of more than 1,000 senior managers at companies with 20-plus employees, one in every five candidates is removed from consideration after the reference check process. This means that, without a strong reference check process in place, your business has a 20 percent risk of hiring the "wrong" candidate.

A properly executed reference check allows you: (a) to verify that the individual is who he or she claims to be, (b) to gain insight into how he or she is viewed by peers, and (c) to find out information that the candidate didn't provide in his or her application, resume, or interview.

In most cases, a failure to check references is nothing more than laziness. While the process is anything but fun, it's a responsibility that all business owners should take seriously. It could mean the difference between a thriving company with a strong corporate culture and a deteriorating business with poor work ethic and hostile relations.

Five Questions Worth Asking

There are many different things to think about when establishing a reference check process, but the first thing that you'll need to do is to develop a list of go-to questions that allow for an honest glimpse into the candidate's background and personal makeup. Here are a few questions that you should always ask:

1. What is Your Relationship to the Candidate?

The very first question that you need to ask is what the reference's relationship is to the candidate. Applicants will often select people who are close to them - such as friends or family members. While these individuals certainly know the applicant well, they are also quite biased. You want references who know the candidate but aren't emotionally attached.

2. Do You Know the Candidate Outside of Work?

This is the perfect follow-up to the previous question. A reference may say, "I'm her boss," but that doesn't totally exclude the possibility of a bias. Perhaps the reference is the candidate's boss and best friend.

By asking the reference if he or she knows the candidate outside of work, you're forcing him or her to acknowledge any potential relationship that hasn't been disclosed. However, it should be noted that just because a reference knows the candidate outside of work, he or she shouldn't be discounted altogether. Just take this into account when listening to his or her assessment.

3. Does the Candidate Always Show Up on Time and Work Hard?

If you ever want advice on how properly to conduct a reference check, meet up with a local landlord, and pick his or her brain. Landlords don't have the luxury of being passive with reference checks. One bad tenant can mean months of expensive legal battles, court filings, and, ultimately, an uncomfortable and costly eviction.

A favorite question among landlords is, "Does the candidate always show up on time and work hard?" At first glance, this may seem like a standard question, but the answer reveals a lot of valuable information.

An employee who always shows up on time and puts in maximum effort has his or her priorities in the right place. An employee who's late and consistently slacks off is just going through the motions and really couldn't care less about his or her output or efficiency. He or she is just cashing a paycheck and moving on. The answer that you really want to hear is, "Yes, she's always the first one in the office and the last one to leave."

4. What are the Candidate's Strengths and Weaknesses?

A strengths and weaknesses question is important. Definitely listen to the strengths portion, and record what the reference says, but really listen up for weaknesses. You likely already know the candidate's strengths (since he or she brought them up during the interview or highlighted them on his or her resume), but weaknesses probably weren't focused on much.

When listening for weaknesses, think about which ones can be corrected over time with proper training and management. Then, think about the other ones that are hard to overcome. If these latter weaknesses directly conflict with the role of the position, then some warning flags should begin to fly.

5. Would You Rehire the Candidate?

Finally, would the reference rehire the candidate (or work with him or her again in the future)? Listen for the immediate reaction. Most will eventually give you a "yes" answer, since they want to avoid conflict, but you can tell a lot by how he or she responds in the first couple of seconds after the question is posed.

If there's a delay, or he or she begins with a word like "well," these are indications that there's some hesitancy. However, if he or she immediately responds with a resounding "yes," then you can feel confident in his or her answer. The key is to dig below the surface, and find the true answer.

Reassess Your Hiring Processes

Hiring is one of the most important responsibilities that a business owner has. While your company's products and operations may be strong, the reality is that your business will only go as far as your employees take it. If you hire the right people, you'll be successful. If you hire the wrong people, then you'll eventually end up somewhere that you don't want to be.

There are many different aspects to the interviewing and hiring processes, but one of the most important responsibilities is reference checking. These references will tell you a lot about the individuals and provide a better picture of who the applicants really are beyond their resumes. Keep these questions in mind, and make reference checking a priority as you move forward.

Related: The worst body-language mistakes to make during an interview

10 worst body language mistakes during interviews
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Five questions to ask an applicant's references

Body language expert Tonya Reiman, author of "The Power of Body Language," previously told Business Insider that job candidates should make sure they offer the "appropriate amount of eye contact." 

"If you don't, the interviewer will assume you are either insecure, don't have an appropriate answer for the question being asked, or are being deceptive. Does that mean it's true? No, but perception is everything in a job interview."

Reiman said smiling demonstrates confidence, openness, warmth, and energy. 

"It also sets off the mirror neurons in your listener, instructing them to smile back. Without the smile, an individual is often seen as grim or aloof," she explained.

This may give the interviewer the impression that you're bored or uninterested in the conversation. Instead, keep your hands on the desk or table, and don't fidget.

In their book "Crazy Good Interviewing," John B. Molidor, Ph.D., and Barbara Parus suggest showing your palms during an interview — since the gesture indicates sincerity — or pressing the fingertips of your hands together to form a church steeple. which displays confidence, reports Business Insider's Shana Lebowitz.

Reiman previously told Business Insider you should always be aware of your posture.

"People don't realize that the job interview begins in the waiting room, but it does. So don't slouch in the chair in the reception area," she advised. "In order to be perceived as confident, you must sit or stand tall, with your neck elongated, ears and shoulders aligned, and chest slightly protruding."

This position changes the chemicals in our brain to make us feel stronger and more confident, and it gives the outward appearance of credibility, strength, and vitality, she explained.

Playing with your hair, touching your face, or any other kind of fidgeting can be a major distraction for your interviewer. It also demonstrates a lack of power, said Reiman.

This gesture will tell the interviewer you're not comfortable or you're closed off. 

"You should always keep your hands in view when you are talking," Patti Wood, a body language expert and author of "SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions Body Language and Charisma," previously told Business Insider. "When a listener can't see your hands, they wonder what you are hiding." To look honest and credible, keep your arms uncrossed and show your hands.

"When we touch our faces or hair, it is because we need self soothing,"Reiman explained.

Is that the message you want to send to your interviewer

A weak handshake may tell the interviewer that you're nervous, shy, and that you lack confidence, explains Colin Shaw, CEO of Beyond Philosophy, a customer experience consultancy, in a LinkedIn post

Ideally, your handshake should be firm, but not overbearing. "The secret to a great handshake is palm-to-palm contact," Wood told Business Insider. You want to slide your hand down into the web of theirs, and make palm-to-palm contact. Lock thumbs, and apply an equal amount of pressure.

"It's okay to use your hands to illustrate a few important points," writes Lebowitz. "In fact, research suggests that staying too still can give the impression of coldness. 

"But relying too much on hand gestures can be distracting, according to Molidor and Parus."

She says you should remember you're in a job interview, not a theater audition. 

People tend to show their dominating personality by gripping the interviewer's hand and palming it down, but this tells the interviewer that you need to feel powerful, Reiman explained. "Instead, the handshake should be more natural: thumbs in the upward position and two to three pumps up and down."

As the applicant, you should always wait for the interviewer to extend their hand first, she added. 


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