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When you speak to references, you need to ask carefully crafted questions to get the real goods on a potential employee. (Thinkstock)
When you speak to references, you need to ask carefully crafted questions to get the real goods on a potential employee. (Thinkstock)

Monday Morning Manager

Ask the right questions, hire the right staff Add to ...

Albert Lee believes in the power of questions. The Toronto-based strategy consultant and entrepreneur believes that good questions – and the good answers they elicit – can help you be successful, through better observation and understanding.

In building his high-tech company Xkoto Inc., from its inception in 2005 until it was bought by Teradata in 2010, Mr. Lee and his two co-founders ferreted out valuable information by asking good questions in an area where most companies have given up on doing more than the routine – checking references. Their staff grew quickly from seven people to about 30, and they knew it was crucial to make the right hires. True, the people they called for references were supplied by the candidate, and were undoubtedly supportive of the person. But by tweaking the standard reference questions, Mr. Lee and his colleagues figure they improved their batting average considerably.

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Here are some tips he shared in his book How to Meet the Queen, and in an interview, starting with the standards types of questions asked of reference-givers:

 

Comment on the candidate’s ability to contribute, individually and as a team member

 

Mr. Lee cringes when he hears this open-ended query, because the answer is usually that the person can contribute in both dimensions. He doesn’t believe people are wired that way. Some are better working alone, and some better working in teams. It has to do with personality, whether we’re introverts or extroverts. So focus on that: “Is the candidate an introvert or an extrovert?” This question forces a choice, and illuminates an important aspect of the person’s work style.

Describe his strengths and weaknesses

Because the reference wants to put the candidate in a good light, usually this question will produce a long list of strengths and perhaps a weakness presented as a strength, such as “he works too hard.” A better approach is to ask, “In what area have you seen the most improvement?” This forces the reference to agree that the person has not been perfect, and exposes weaknesses. “This results in a better conversation. It forces the reference to think,” Mr. Lee said.

 

Describe his relationship with his peers, direct reports and customers

 

Mr. Lee said this question almost sounds like you’re searching for someone to be best man at a wedding. In reality, you want to know how the person deals with conflict, so ask: “Describe a situation where he was in conflict with a colleague or a business contact, and how the conflict played out?” This assumes conflicts have occurred. “There has to be conflict if you are doing anything meaningful. This puts the spotlight on it,” he said. You may have to press, however, because people often don’t remember conflict – they put it out of mind.

How does he handle pressure?

This question isn’t bad, and usually will prompt an anecdote. But Mr. Lee recommends going further, probing to find out the candidate’s limit of pressure: “Describe a pressure-packed situation that you observed the candidate in and what you think his comfort zone is?” Character is forged under pressure, Mr. Lee believes, and this gives a glimpse of how the candidate handles such situations. The answer should also be linked to the introvert-extrovert discussion, analyzing whether they internalize pressure or turn to their network.

How does he handle criticism?

This question actually only touches part of the issue. You want to know what criticisms have been levelled already, what the candidate is doing about them, and how he took the criticism. So instead, ask: “What things were you working on with the candidate to improve on, how did it go, and how did he handle it when you pointed out the deficiencies?”

Is he a good communicator?

Everyone has different communications styles, and there is no ideal manner, particularly because communication should be two-way. Instead, ask: “What is his communication style?” Similarly, instead of asking whether the person has managed people, shift to the aspect of style: “What is his leadership style?” While you’re at it, ask: “How does he like to learn – by reading, watching, doing, through examples?”

Comment on his attitude

Mr. Lee said this request usually elicits a lot of sunny platitudes of little value. Instead, dig deeper with: “What tasks did the candidate like doing most/least and how did he approach the extremes?” For example, because many tech people hate quality assurance, preferring to build than test and debug, he would ask if the person spent time in quality assurance and how he fared. “The best test of attitudes is to put people in a situation they didn’t like,” he notes.

Would you hire him again, and at what level?

This is meant to be the biggie, but the reference invariably says yes. What you really want to ask is: “Knowing what you know about the candidate, would you hire him again?” Mr. Lee suggests getting to that discussion by asking: “What did you learn about the candidate over the years that you wished you knew at the beginning, when you were interviewing him?”

Reference checking is critical, and you don’t have to undertake it with a defeatist attitude. These questions will help you to understand the candidate better, even when the answers are coming from a trusted colleague.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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