Five Main Questions Employers Will Ask Your References


Let’s imagine you are at that most desirable point in your job search when an employer is checking your references.

You are probably wondering what the conversation is about. Let me share five questions a prospective employer will ask about you.

  • Did he or she actually work for you as a <insert position>? Hard to believe, but the main thing to sort out is whether an applicant is for real and telling the truth. There are many situations when references are never checked, so job searchers have been known to stretch the truth. The employer just wants to know that you haven’t done that. The first thing he/she will do is confirm your job title and the dates of your employment.
  • How was the performance of <insert applicant’s name>? Normally, applicants will ask a reference person in advance for permission. But occasionally that doesn’t happen. In those situations, an employer might get a surprise: the performance wasn’t as good as expected. The lesson here is to ask references in advance and to choose people who you trust to speak kindly about you.
  • How could <applicant X> improve his/her performance? This is a tough question for the reference who prefers to only speak positively about you. However, he/she knows that everyone can improve somewhere, somehow. An ideal reference will take the same strategy as you do when asked about weaknesses: offer an authentic weakness, but one that is not too damaging. In my case, an ideal reference might say, “Gwen doesn’t really like moving around tables and equipment when she teaches a class. Her upper body strength is a little weak.” Most of my employers don’t care about this because it’s really a sideline to the other things I do in my job.
  • Would you rehire <Applicant X>? This question is designed to get at the heart of any reservations your employer has about you. If a reluctant reference has held back any negative opinions up to now, this is the question that breaks the dam. If a reference probably would not want to rehire you, here’s where it will come out. Your ideal reference will normally answer, “Yes!” Or even, “Absolutely!” That is the goal. If you are close enough to your reference to offer coaching, this is the desired answer.
  • Is there anything else I should know about this candidate to help him/her succeed in our organization? Once again, this is an attempt to check for any red flags. Your ideal reference will probably say, “I think Applicant X will do a great job for you if he/she has all the same opportunities as everyone else. You will be happy that you’ve hired him/her.” If there is an issue about accommodating a new hire, then a reference will ideally speak positively about your potential to thrive with a slight bit of assistance. “If Applicant X can do the job from a sitting position, I know he/she will be able to thrive. She/he is very friendly and well-liked by customers and can easily do the job as long as you keep in mind this basic need.” If a past employer/co-worker communicates a successful experience with you, the future employer will probably feel comfortable with you, too.

As you wait and wonder about conversations between your references and your prospective employer, keep in mind that communication is always the key. If you are worried about anything in particular, talk about that issue with your references ahead of time. Help them to understand your needs and the prospective employer’s needs.

If you have arrived at this point in the interview, it is clear that the new employer really wants to hire you. He/she wouldn’t bother checking your references if that wasn’t the goal. Reference checks are normally the last due diligence responsibility an employer must do before welcoming you on board.

Gwen PawlikowskiAbout the Author:
Gwen Pawlikowski is a freelance writer and entrepreneur who has also worked as an ISSofBC employment counsellor with newcomers. She lives in New Westminster and loves the diversity of the Lower Mainland. Please click here for information on ISSofBC’s career services.

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