Reference-Checking Scenarios: Administrative Support Staff

ADMINISTRATIVE SUPPORT REFERENCE questions focus primarily on superior-subordinate relationships in terms of how candidates follow instructions, work independently, respond to constructive criticism, and feed information back to you. The career opportunities for secretaries, administrative assistants, and other members of the administrative support ranks offer more variety, reward, and independent decision making than ever. Consequently, the talent emerging from their ranks is nothing less than astounding. As a result, you'll need to sharpen your referencing skills to separate excellence from mediocrity. These questions for candidates' former supervisors will be an excellent place to start.

How structured an environment would you say this individual needs to reach her maximum potential?

Why Ask This Question?

This supervisory issue is always surfaced first in the reference-checking process because it gets former employers talking freely. Since it requires an objective response with no right or wrong answers, an employer won't initially feel as if he's playing God with the former employee's future by having to immediately address weaknesses and shortcomings. (Those issues will follow shortly.) More important, this query provides future advice on how to bring out the best in the individual. You'll have a lot more success getting people to speak about future guidance issues rather than past performance problems because it places past employers in a mentoring role capable of adding valuable career advice.

Analyzing the Response

Some people require fairly structured direction with lots of feedback and ongoing open communication. Others work much more efficiently when their bosses simply set the parameters for a project and leave them alone to complete their work independently. Again, this is a matter of style, so there is no right or wrong answer. Many managers feel that option two—total independence—is the ideal response. That's because most people want some kind of assurance that they won't have to baby-sit a demanding new employee.

Although that's generally true, the best answer simply hinges on your personal management style. If you like working fairly independently without a lot of interaction with your staff, then such a response would be great. On the other hand, if you have trouble totally letting go of projects under your control, you'll probably want your subordinates to keep you in the progress loop as if you were still in control. Therefore, you'd probably prefer working with a subordinate who enjoys ongoing direction and feedback because it keeps you tuned in to what's happening.

Remember that the purpose of the reference check is not solely to determine a candidate's "hire ability" vis-a-vis past performance issues. The best references, in contrast, provide insights and future direction for giving the new hire added support from day one. This way, no one has to reinvent the wheel in terms of meshing personal styles with business cultures.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. There is a variation on this theme that you might favor as a first question in the reference-checking process:

''John, you're Doug's past boss, and if all goes well, I'll be his next supervisor. My management style is to be fairly laissez-faire in the sense that I really cherish my time and independence. Some people might consider that a weakness of mine, but I don't want to provide a lot of structure and direction to my staff. I guess I value their independence as much as I cherish my own, and I expect them to complete their projects all by themselves. How would Doug fare under my type of management style?''

This scenario is a little bit more like the television game show Jeopardy in that you're providing the answer and looking for someone to tell you the question. The results you get, though, should be equally valuable. If you use no other reference-check question in the preemployment hiring process, use this one because it will provide you with some very important information about the optimal management style for a prospective new hire.

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