A leading HR professional states that when his team gets in touch with the references provided by a potential employee, the team basically wants to confirm that the candidate is in fact exactly or very close to the person that they believe him to be. Often times, this confirmation depends not on what the reference says but how he says it and whether he hesitates while answering questions regarding the candidate.
Here are a few things that a reference check is expected to reveal:
Truth about past employment: Most of the standard questions that a recruiter would ask your references would revolve around your current or past job. The recruiter would basically want to ensure that the details, such as dates of past employment, reasons for leaving the job, and the position at which you worked, that you have provided regarding your past/current job are accurate. Hence, it is very important that what your reference says matches your story, especially when it comes to why you want to move jobs. Therefore, it pays to be as honest as possible in your interviews as when you are honest, you will never have to worry about what your reference would say or what would happen if the truth were to come out. In other words, if you were laid off, say that you were laid off instead of saying that it was a mutual decision to leave the company.
Job performance: The recruiter may also question your references about your performance and attitude at the workplace. Most of the common questions revolve around your strengths and weaknesses, areas for improvement, what motivates you, your significant achievements at work, and your ability to work as part of a team.
Your personality: Further, the recruiter may ask indirect questions such as whether your reference would trust you with her kids or would you be on her list of invitees for the Christmas party she throws every year. Such questions are asked to find out aspects of your personality that are not revealed by performance-related questions, and on these questions, it is not what your reference says but how she says it that counts.
Also, your selection of references reveals a lot about you. If all your references are family members or close friends, the recruiter would most rightly assume that your professional life is not up to mark. Hence, it always pays to provide references of people from your current or past workplace. And if your references are your supervisors or managers, you get bonus points as these people would be the best to give an accurate overview of how good an employee you are or were. Although other members of the team may also be good references, they may not necessarily understand your job role or accomplishments well enough to make informed remarks on them.
Therefore, it makes sense that you select people you know you well professionally as your references. Also, although you may not know the exact list of questions that the recruiter may ask your references, it would be wise to refresh their memory about your responsibilities at work, your professional accomplishments, and how good a fit you are for the job.
Moreover, before putting down a person's name as your reference, it would be wise to first check with him/her whether he/she would want to recommend you. This is true even for people who have been your references in the past. This is not just common courtesy, but it will ensure that your reference does not get surprise or does not fail to recall you or details about your job and your workplace performance when your recruiter call him/her asking questions about you and that he/she is well prepared to answer the recruiter's questions.
According to most recruiters, reference checks are not the most important aspect of the hiring process, but are definitely worth paying attention to. After all, you may not want to lose your dream job before you have even had it just because you failed to provide the right references or because your references were not well prepared to answer questions about you. Moreover, these recruiters state that in the event of a tie between two or more very closely matched potential employees, reference checks may become the deal breaker and hence take on the role of the most important part of the hiring process.
Therefore, ensure that you select the right people from your professional circle as your references and keep them well informed of what job you are seeking and why you are a good fit for the job. Knowing what skills to highlight would not just make your references' lives easier when answering the recruiter's questions, but it will also increase your chances of getting the job.