What may you ask in a job interview?

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Hiring employees can be a difficult process. You need to identify workers with the skills and intelligence to do the job. Are your candidates team players, hard workers or certifiable sociopaths? You've tried to make the smartest choice through your interview process and you want to proceed, but now you need to check references. But what can you legally ask a potential employee's references and will you really find out what you need to know?

To check or not to check

Despite the potential perils in conducting a reference check, it is always advisable to do one. Why? You owe it to your firm, your existing employees and the people with whom you do business to check a potential employee's references. Checking references is viewed as due diligence and smart business practice, so go ahead and do it. In fact, if you do not, your actions could be construed as negligent. If you are not confident doing reference checks, there are firms who offer this service on an outsource basis.

Corporate reference policies

Many reference checkers are frustrated when they contact a candidate's previous employer. Often, firms have policies that restrict reference information to general facts such as a former employee's name, dates of employment and title. Many companies have established these policies out of fear; some firms have been subjected to defamation suits after negative references were offered.

What can you ask?

First, remember that it is worthwhile to check even basic information when you do a reference check. An astonishing number of people lie about their work experience; even if they do not manufacture jobs or titles, they may stretch dates, titles or salaries to make themselves look more favorable.

Some basic questions you should always ask during a reference check include:

  • Employment dates
  • Titles held
  • Starting and ending salary
  • Eligibility for rehire

The dates, salary and employment dates will help you confirm the candidate's honesty and the accuracy of the information that was submitted. One of the most useful questions is to ask whether the employee is eligible for rehire. Since this is generally a matter of record or fact, former employers will generally answer it honestly. If the company would not rehire the employee, you have an area to investigate further. You should ask for additional information as to why the employee would not be rehired.

If you are talking to the candidate's former boss, you are likely to get more information than if you simply call the human resources department. Ask the reference to rate the former employee on a scale (for example, from one to ten) in areas like job performance, getting along with co-workers and attendance.

Finish up your conversation with a general question like "Is there anything else you would think a prospective employer should know about this person before hiring him?"

What topics should you avoid in a reference check?

In a reference check, you should avoid any questions that you could not legally ask the candidate. For example, you should not ask the former employer any questions about the candidate's marital status, religious affiliations, age or national origin.

Final reference checking topics

When you approach a reference, be friendly and try to establish rapport with the former employer. It is also a good idea to provide an overview of the position for which you are hiring and to ask the reference to speak about the candidate's skills with regards to that position.

Finally, keep your questions as objective as possible and focus on whether the candidate has the skills to do the job for which you are considering him or her.