Reference-Checking Scenarios: Professional/ Technical Candidates

THE REFERENCE-CHECKINGQUESTIONS that follow will allow you to continue in your quest to gain third-party, objective information regarding an individual's ability to excel in your company. Bear in mind, though, that critical queries for professional and technical candidates go beyond what are listed below. These queries are useful and practical in terms of gauging candidates' historical work patterns and providing future insights regarding optimal management techniques. However, they necessarily lack the specific details unique to your industry or discipline. Only you can develop adequate questions to measure a candidate's specific performance in a number of given areas.

For example, if you are checking references on a residential real estate appraiser, you'll probably want to address these position-specific issues:

''What were the daily production standards at your firm in terms of full-blown, Fannie Mae appraisals versus limited, drive-by appraisals?''

''How would you grade this candidate's narrative skills?''

''How consistent was this candidate at selecting adequate comps for a given property?''

''How willing was the individual to handle appraisals in dilapidated structures or generally go beyond the call of duty?''

Similarly, if you're staffing openings for insurance claims adjusters, you might ask:

''What was the size of the typical caseload assigned to this individual?''

''How aggressive was this adjustor at auditing medical bills and setting adequate reserves for a given claim?''

''Would you consider this candidate a soft negotiator who backed down from a confrontation with an aggressive attorney, or did this person show a stubborn resistance toward settling beyond a predetermined limit?''

The specific nature of these questions depends on your particular business and industry. The key to developing such queries lies in assessing the skills that your most successful staff members have in common as well as the knockout factors that have historically made people fail at the job. The development of such a skill-based or performance-based inventory is a simple and straightforward exercise, and such questions will definitely complement the queries that follow.

How would you grade this candidate's capacity for analytical thinking and problem solving?

Why Ask This Question?

It's probably uncomfortable for you to just come out and ask how smart somebody is. You also don't want to lob a query like, ''Does Jane have a good head on her shoulders?'' because people are predisposed to say yes to such general issues. After all, a former employer who says no to that kind of question would not only be guaranteeing that Jane loses out on your company's job offer, but he would also insult his own management skills for having hired Jane in the first place.

Still, you have a right to know whether someone is predisposed to react with emotions instead of reason. You might learn that the individual has a restless nature and is easily sidetracked, distracted, or bored. Perhaps the candidate in question is opinionated and argumentative, and such an inclination impedes her ability to solve problems analytically and objectively. Additionally, you may hear that the individual is overly optimistic about how quickly and easily things can be made to happen; therefore, she spreads herself too thin and makes unduly optimistic assumptions about her subordinates' abilities without developing contingency plans.

Analyzing the Response

In essence, this query demands a response to: ''How well does this person know her business?'' You're not necessarily gauging IQs or natural propensities for genius. In contrast, this is a hands-on question regarding the candidate's ability to distinguish sound decisions from ineffective ones. And expertise in decision making is more a function of exposure and experience than of natural intelligence. After all, no senior manager will have risen through the ranks of middle management without having had his nose bloodied somewhat. And we all learn more from our mistakes than from our successes anyway.

Red Flags

Still, analytical thinking demands business maturity, solid listening skills, and a propensity to project the consequences of one's actions. It stems from self-confidence and awareness of personal limitations. Therefore, when interpreting the feedback you get, look out for problematic responses that point to an irrational, shoot-from-the-hip mentality. The problematic feedback you get might sound like this:

''Oh, Dave is a very good underwriter, but he sometimes over commits himself because he wears rose-colored glasses and is overly optimistic as to what can be accomplished in a given day.''


''Rachel makes a fine corporate attorney, but it's only been two years since she graduated from law school, and I think she's still contemplating where she can make the biggest impact in the legal field in general. Her calling may be outside the corporate world, such as working for a nonprofit organization, and the fact that she grapples with a higher cause in all her actions can blur her ability to make effective and sound decisions.''


''I've addressed this issue with Sharon before, and I feel that although she's very smart, her lack of organization puts her in a position to put out fires all the time rather than work proactively at staying ahead of problems before they surface. She doesn't always structure her plans for working through a project. That's impeded her ability to solve problems as effectively as she otherwise could, so that's an area where you'd definitely want to give her added support and structure.''

Such feedback will merit closer scrutiny as you speak with other references.

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