Hiring someone new? 29 questions to ask during a reference call

As a manager, here’s how to make the most of your 15-minute call with a candidate’s reference.

I remember the first time I hired someone new. Talk about feeling like I had no clue what I was doing! I especially felt that way when it came time to do reference calls for the candidates. Having never held a reference call before, I was wasn’t even sure if the calls would be a good use of my time.

Most of all, I was perplexed by what to ask during a reference call. What questions should I pose so I’d actually learn something new about this potential employee?

Over the years, after talking extensively with other CEOs and managers who’d spent years (or even decades) hiring folks, learning from my own trial and error, and pulling from the knowledge of our almost 1,000 members at The Watercooler (our online leadership community in Know Your Team) — I’ve assembled a list of questions for a candidate’s references.

Here are the 29 questions I tend to ask during reference calls:

(I’m generally looking for consistency of answers across references, and if the answers match up to the candidate’s own)

Understanding the relationship

  • Please tell me a little bit about yourself and how you know XX? (How long, in what context? How often were you in contact, etc.?)
  • Do you know the candidate outside of work?
  • What are your overall impressions of XX?

Strengths and weaknesses

  • What are XX’s three greatest strengths and why?
  • What do you think XX does best? Their strengths?
  • Given that no one is perfect and everyone has areas in which he or she can improve, can you describe any areas XX can or should continue to develop?
  • What are XX’s most significant professional accomplishments?
  • What about areas where she can continue to grow and develop? How have these areas changed over time?
  • Often we learn most from our mistakes or missteps. Can you give me an example of a mistake or misstep that XX learned and grew from?

Leadership and conflict

  • How would you characterize XX’s general leadership style? (e.g., authoritative, consultative, task master, etc.)?
  • How would you describe XX’s overall working style?
  • Where have you seen XX be most effective in building relationships, internally and externally? What is her approach? How does she adjust their style to various stakeholder needs and preferences?
  • Can you tell me about a time when you disagreed with the candidate? What was it about? How did the person handle it? What was the outcome?
  • Can you tell me about a time when the candidate didn’t get along with a fellow coworker or client? Why was that?

Decision-making and handling adversity

  • Can you tell me about a time when the candidate had to make a tough decision? What was it about? How did the person handle it? What was the outcome?
  • Can you tell me about a time that the candidate made a mistake / handled a situation poorly? How did they handle it? What was the outcome?
  • What relationship-focused challenges have you observed XX encounter? Did she overcome them? If so, how? Do you have an example of when XX provided constructive feedback to you (and vice versa, if applicable)? Is she receptive to feedback?
  • Can you tell me about a time when the candidate struggled? How did they deal with it?

Internal communication

  • How often and did XX keep her or his supervisors, direct reports, peers, etc. updated? What methods did she or he use?

Overall fit questions

  • What’s the perfect conditions for XX to be at their best?
  • What advice you would give to our leadership team about how best to work with him/her?
  • Would you like to work with / hire XX again?
  • In what type of organizational setting/culture would XX do their best work? Why?
  • How does this person compare with other people in similar positions in your organization or comparable organizations where you’ve worked?
  • Why did the candidate leave? Could the candidate have stayed if she or he had wanted to?
  • If the opportunity arose, would you rehire / work with this candidate again?
  • What advice would you give me to help this person succeed in this role / ensure we work well together?
  • Is there anything else that I should know about before moving XX forward in the process?
  • Thank you so much for your help and insight. Do you mind if I contact you again in case I have additional questions?

Those 29 questions are in my back pocket during a reference call.

What’s in yours?

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

5 questions that reveal if a company has a healthy workplace culture

Everyone says, “It’s great working here.” But is it really? Here are the questions to ask to assess if a company has a positive work culture.

“How do you know if a company’s culture is good?”

Last week, a friend who’s looking for a new job asked me this. She’d been doing a few interviews, and was trying to figure out what questions to ask during her interviews to discern if a potential employer’s workplace culture was healthy.

In each interview, she’d ask a version of: “What’s it like to work here?”

Without fail, the person on the other side of the table would tell her: “It’s great!”

But is it really?

How do you know if a company’s culture is what they say it is?

Instead of asking “What’s it like to work here?” these five questions are what I recommended she ask at the end of her next interview…

#1: When is the last time you had a 4-hour block of uninterrupted time?

Our most productive, creative work happens when we have a large block of uninterrupted time. Yet how many workplaces make that a reality regularly for their employees? Ask a question about the last time your interviewer had an uninterrupted period of time to get work done and listen closely to the answer. Your interviewer may scoff and tell you: “We like to stay busy, busy, busy — meetings all the time, messages constantly on Slack…” Or she may sit there, a little stumped by the question, before slowly answering: “Hmmm… I’m not sure.” Both bring to light a clear truth: The company does not have a culture that values a calm environment where employees’ time is protected for them to do real work.

#2: When is the last time you argued about something with someone?

Healthy company cultures have a penchant for heated debate. People who are a part of them are not afraid to voice dissenting opinions and they treat opposing views with consideration and care. You want to dig to see if this is the case at the company you’re interviewing with. Do they suffer from a “culture of nice,” where everyone is conflict-averse and afraid to step on anyone’s toes? Or are people abrasive, tone-deaf and handle conflict without any tact? Arguments are unavoidable. They will happen in whatever company you work in next. What’s important is figuring out if those arguments will be handled well. You want a culture where people are upfront and honest when theydisagree, and come to a resolution civilly.

#3: When’s the last time you had a conversation with the CEO one-on-one?

(Or, if you’re interviewing with the CEO, you can ask her: “When’s the last time you had a conversation one-on-one with [a person in your role]?”)

As an employee, you want to gauge the accessibility of the leadership team — and of the CEO in particular. Sure, when you’re in interviews, many companies will point out how their CEO’s desk is out in the open with everyone else’s, or that her office door is never closed shut. Does that mean she frequently gets up from her desk or out of her office, and seeks out perspectives from the front lines? If you have a concern, will it be difficult or seen as uncouth to try get a hold of her? Asking a question about the last time the interviewer spoke one-on-one with the CEO will give you an idea of how seriously the company takes openness, access to leadership, and a desire to hear from everyone in the company.

#4: When have you felt most proud to be at the company?

This question can uncover what people at the company truly value. For example, someone might say in an interview, “Everyone here is a team-player and we all care about accomplishing our company’s mission.” But if you ask them, “When have you felt most proud to be at the company?” they might tell you their proudest moment was hitting a personal sales goal and winning an individual award in the company. While that’s no doubt an accomplishment anyone should be proud of, it does reveal a fondness for individual recognition. Compare that to, say, the interviewer telling you their proudest moment was when the company won an industry-wide award or when a customer raved about the company, etc. Either way, you’ll learn if what makes people proud to work there is about themselves or about the company. And it will give you a sense of if the same thing would make you proud to work there too.

#5: When’s the last time someone went above and beyond the call of duty at the company?

When people across departments and disciplines are willing to do favors with one another, pitch in to resolve an issue, and not worry about who’s getting credit for what — that’s the kind of company culture you want to be a part of. If you’re in a bind at work, you don’t want selfish office politics to get in the way. To clue into whether this is true for your prospective employer, ask about a time someone went “above and beyond the call of duty.” In your interviewer’s answer, you may hear her struggle to think of even one instance of this (uh oh) or you may hear her rattle off a whole list. From this, you’ll gain an understanding of how people at the company actively help and support one another… if at all.

If you’re on the job hunt, try a few of these questions at the end of your next interview. You’re bound to learn so much more than asking, “What’s it like to work here?”.

But if you’re not — if you’re an employer who’s actively recruiting new hires — ask yourself these questions.

Do you like your own answers to them?

Your company culture may not be as healthy as you’d like to say it is.


P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Hire someone new? Don’t forget to do these four things when onboarding a new employee

The importance of onboarding a new employee well cannot be overstated. Here’s how to do it well.

Welcome new employees!

Do you remember the last time you started a new job?

I do. I was intimidated. Everyone in the company already knew each other and “how things work around here”… except me.

I was reminded of this when I spoke on a webinar for New Hire recently. A new employee’s anxiety around joining a company can get in the way of that person doing a good job. So as the CEO, you want to do everything you can to make your new hire feel as welcome as possible when they arrive.

If you don’t onboard a new hire well (or forget to do it all together), it can be a costly mistake. According to a recent infographic in Fast Company, 31% of people have quit a job within the first six months. The cost of losing an employee in the first year is estimated to be at least three times the salary of that employee.

The good news is that onboarding a new hire well can be simple to do.

It comes down to two things: help a new hire overcome the anxiety of joining a new company, and ask questions to ensure the new hire feels connected to the company.

Do these two things well, and you’ll increase the likelihood that your new hire will feel welcomed in your company sooner, and will stay committed to your company longer.

Here are some specific ways for how to do this…

(1) Make the new employee’s introduction to the company a two-way street.

Oftentimes, when new employees are introduced to the rest of the company, they are brought up in front of everyone at an all-company meeting, and asked to share a bit about themselves. For a new employee, this can feel overwhelming. It’s as though a blinding spotlight is being cast on them.

Instead, when the new hire is introduced to the company, make sure everyone else in the company introduces themselves to this new person too. You want to avoid putting this new hire “on the spot” as much as possible. (With our product Know Your Team, we purposefully do this with our Icebreakers feature).

(2) As the CEO, schedule a one-on-one with the new hire that first week.

According to Fast Company, more than 33% of new hires want management to show them the ropes — not HR or other coworkers. This isn’t because a new hire doesn’t value having HR or other coworkers’ perspectives as they learn about the company. They absolutely do. But it’s because connecting with you, as the leader, helps them feel invested in the company’s vision and direction as a whole. They’ll feel more committed about the “why” behind what your company is doing.

If your company has been on a hiring spree lately, and you feel like it’s too challenging to meet with every new hire one-on-one, you can meet with your new hires in small groups. For example, one of our Know Your Company customers, Delta Defense, does this regularly. Their CEO Tim Schmidt will personally meet with every new hire in groups of three to five people, and walk them through their company’s values.

(3) Ask your new employees these four questions during their first week.

When you do sit down with a new hire for the first time, it’s a huge opportunity to get to know a new hire on a personal level, and learn about their expectations of the company. It’s also a great way to show them what you care about in the company by the types of questions you ask. It sets a tone that you’re open to feedback, and genuinely want to hear their insights. Here are four questions you could start with:

– What’s your favorite dessert? Favorite sports team? (or something fun and personal 🙂 )
– What’s one thing that annoyed you about your previous boss / manager at your last job?
– What’s one thing that attracted you to our company, above all else?
– What’s your biggest fear or worry coming into this job?

(4) Ask your new employees these four questions regularly throughout the year.

Employee onboarding goes beyond the first month they’re with you at the company. It takes time to fully integrate an employee into the company. So you want to ask questions regularly, throughout their time at your company, before something bubbles up into a major issue.

Here are four questions you should ask a new employee across the course of their career with you at your company. We’ve based this on the four most popular questions asked through Know Your Team:

– Do you think the company is the right size?
– Have you ever been afraid to suggest an idea at work because you thought someone might shoot it down?
– Do you feel like you’re spread too thin right now?
– If someone asked you to describe the vision of the company, would a clear answer immediately come to mind?

Onboarding a new employee is something that can easily be overlooked. Especially, if you’re hiring quickly, or if you’ve got someone else in your company dedicated to the training of your staff.

Don’t forget that the way a new employee feels as they join your company is crucial. They’ll remember that first impression — it’ll stick with them throughout their career at your company. You only get one chance to get it right.

So don’t mess it up. Get started off on the right foot, and do these four things when someone new joins your company.

You’ll give your new hire a reason to stay for the long haul.