What job references really say

Ihr Chef bittet Sie um Hilfe, einen geigneten Bewerber für eine offene Stelle auszusuchen. Bei Bewerbern von deutschen Unternehmen richten Sie sich nach den Zeugnissen der Arbeitgeber. In Großbritannien und den USA ist es schwieriger, da es in der Regel keine Zeugnisse gibt. So finden Sie trotzdem heraus, wer sich für die freie Stelle eignet.

In Germany, if you want to find out if an applicant is suitable for a position, one of the first things you do is read any 'Arbeitszeugnisse' from previous employers. Then you recommend the most suitable applicants to your boss. In the UK and USA, however, it is not usual to get a written recommendation, or 'Arbeitszeugnis', from a previous employer.

Instead, candidates who get as far as the job interview offer to provide the names of two or three people who have offered to act as a referee. As you know, in Germany 'Arbeitszeugnisse' have a 'secret code', with small but significant emphasis placed on such things as whether someone worked "zur vollen" or "zur vollsten Zufriedenheit". As references in the English-speaking world are confidential, there is no standard secret code.

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Referees can, and generally will, say what they want about a person's character, work ethos or achievements relatively candidly. You don't have to worry about misinterpreting anything you hear or read about a candidate, because what a referee says can generally be accepted as the truth. But you have to know which questions to ask. As a secretary, it is often your job to phone these referees and ask them to supply references. Sometimes, your boss will want a written reference, but often, you will have to interview the referee on the phone.

This is how you ask for a reference

  • We have an application for the job of junior secretary from Anna Mills. Ms Mills gave you as a referee. I wonder if you would be so kind as to answer a few questions so we can find out if she is suitable for this job.
  • I'm calling because Mr Alex Smallcroft has applied for a job as a software engineer and has given us your name as a referee. Would you have five minutes to answer a few questions about him so we can see if he is suitable?

Here are 7 critical questions to ask when checking references

1 "What responsibilities did Ms Mills have while working at your company?"

This will let you compare the position with the description the candidate gave you. Before asking the next question, give a brief description of the position the candidate is being considered for, focussing on the three top-priority responsibilities.

2 "Mr Smallcroft will be responsible for… . Do you think he is qualified to assume these responsibilities? Why or why not?"

This will make it easy for the referee to make a qualified judgment about whether the candidate's qualifications and experience are really suited to the job.

3 "What was his attendance record? Was he alwayson time and was he dependable?"

Be sensitive to any extenuating circumstances that may have contributed to poor work attendance – like illness or family problems. What you are looking for here is to see if the candidate assumed responsibility to show up for work on time.

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4 "Did Mr Smallcroft have scope for development in his job, and how did he respond?"

This is a good way of getting information about performance weaknesses that may not have otherwise been offered by the referee. Listen carefully to how the candidate developed. Was it through his own efforts, or did he need constant direction?

5 "Why did Ms Mills leave your company?"

This question should verify the reasons the candidate gave during the interview.

6 "What are his / her three strongest qualities?"

You may already have received direct and indirect answers to this question in the course of the interview, but by asking it again at the end of the interview, you give the referee a chance to highlight any characteristics that stand out.

7 "Would you rehire him?"

This final question is the defining one. Based on what you have heard during the telephone call, the answer to this one will help you answer your most critical question: "Should we hire this candidate?"