Reference Checks — Some Dos and Some Don’ts

I am not an attorney and this tip is not to be construed as legal advice. But a few pointers can be offered here.

The laws concerning reference checks vary from state to state.

Depending on when you are reading this, there are some states without any restrictions on what you can ask or disclose on reference checks. Well, there are the obvious subjects to avoid: race, religion, age and other subjects that are considered a protected class.

In a number of states, you can only ask or disclose information on job performance.

In some states, you can ask or disclose information on:

• Job performance
• Reasons for termination or separation
• Knowledge, qualifications, skills, or abilities

HR people generally know the rules and the laws involved with checking references. This tip is mainly for business owners who want to be involved with the hiring process.

One obvious recommendation for business owners is to find out what your state’s specific laws are on reference checks and act accordingly.

Another recommendation is to ask your applicant for their permission and to get the contact information of those they want you to speak to. If they are still employed at Company X and you call them for a reference check, you may get them fired.

Job performance is by far the most allowed subject for discussion from state to state, so here are some possible questions:

How would you rate (applicant’s) job performance at your company?

How would you rate (applicant’s) (insert quality here: ability to work with other employees, communication skills, ability to solve problems, etc.)?

In terms of job performance, what do you feel (applicant) could most improve upon?

What would you say (applicant’s) top contribution was for your company?

Again, I want to say this tip is not offered as legal advice. If you’re a business owner and you want to do reference checks AND you have an HR department, get with them to make sure you’re staying on the right side of the law. If you don’t have an HR department, or your HR people have any uncertainties on this subject, then get some legal advice.

When you know exactly what you can (and can’t) do with regards to references and your particular location, then roll up your sleeves and get some really good questions asked and answered.

Remember our motto:

The more you know about someone BEFORE you hire them, the better your hiring decision will be.

[This tip was inspired by a post by]


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Are You Reading Your Company’s Reviews?

Your prospective employees are able to find out a fair amount about your company before they apply for a job with you.

Some of this information is basic information about your company, its location, number of employees, hours of operation and things like that.

But many sites are available now that contain reviews of your company. Reviews left by current or former employees.

Are you reading these reviews?

If not, then one or two bad reviews could cause qualified applicants to look elsewhere for employment.

Most of the sites allow company representatives to respond to reviews and I strongly urge you do this.

If you were looking for a job, went to a job site, saw two very negative reviews about a company you were considering, what would you think?

Now, if both of these negative reviews included a well worded response from the company, a response that made good sense to you, would you not feel more inclined to give the company a shot?

Two of the usual places, especially for smaller businesses are Yelp and Google Reviews. Here are two links to help you respond to reviews:


Google My Business

But there are many other web sites where employees can leave reviews. I’ll list nine different sites here, each with a link so you can read over any reviews left for your company and respond to these reviews:


Great Place to Work






Angie’s list

And there are others out there. It may seem a bit daunting, but it is absolutely worth your time to look over the reviews that are being written about your company. If not so positive, respond in a very professional, even-handed way.

If your company is well run and you treat your employees well, you should see a preponderance of positive reviews. But even the best run companies will incur negative reviews from time to time. Respond and let the business world know your side of things.


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Do You Cherish Your High Performers?

You may be asking, “how is this a hiring tip?”

Well, it most certainly is.

Some business owners appreciate their top performers.

Some appreciate them and do a variety of things to acknowledge them.

Some are aware of them as top performers, but have an expectation that they should be operating at a high level and do very little to acknowledge them.

Various levels of acknowledgement of top performers are out there — from no acknowledgement at all to a very high level of acknowledgement.

Where are you on this?

The reason I ask, and the reason this is a hiring tip is very simple:

If you lose a top performer, you are now back out on the streets looking for someone to replace that person.

And here are some scenarios that may now play out:

A) It may take considerable time finding someone.

B) You may find someone but it takes considerable time to bring that person up to the predecessor’s level of production.

C) You may find someone but — regardless of training, coaxing and incentives — that person does not reach the predecessor’s level of production.

D) You may not find someone to replace that level of productivity.

So, the hiring tip is:

Cherish your high producers.

The cost in trying to replace them can be very high in terms of time and money.

There is a business concept you’re likely familiar with: “lost income.” Lost income is the income you lost because you didn’t have something or someone in place to carry out X, Y or Z at your business. It’s not always easy to recognize lost income, but it’s a legitimate factor in running a business. A top performer NOT producing — well, that produces lost income.

A future tip will give some ideas on how to “cherish your high performers.” Stay tuned for that.


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How Clearly Can You Define the Position?

When you have a position to be filled, how do you advertise that?

Do you say:

– Receptionist Needed

Or do you give more detail, as in:

– Receptionist Needed.

– Two years previous experience as a receptionist required.

Or even more detail:

– Receptionist Needed.

– Two years previous experience as a receptionist required.

– Good communication skills a must.

Well, obviously the last one will give potential applicants a clearer picture of what you need.

My recommendation is to go even further:

– Receptionist Needed.

– Two years previous experience as a receptionist required.

We’re looking for someone with:

– Good communication skills.

– A high willingness to help others.

– Genuine affinity and appreciation for people.

– Enjoys fast paced activity.

Come with great references.

The more specific you are, the better. Yes, I realize you may be screening out a number of potential applicants when you get this specific, but you may also find the applicants that come forward are just what you need.

You may have to juggle this some to make sure you’re not being so specific that no one applies, but I think you know what I mean. Let’s clearly state what you’re looking for and decide that person will show up on your doorstep.


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How Optimistic Are They?

Here’s a simple definition of optimistic:

“believing that good things will happen in the future”

While we’re at it, let’s look at a definition of pessimistic:

“expecting that bad things will happen in the future or that something will have a bad result.”

You may be thinking, “what’s the big deal? Some people are optimistic, some are pessimistic. It’s just the way people are wired. How can that be a factor in making a hiring decision?”

Well, here’s my view of these two very different human qualities:

If you give a task to an optimistic employee, an employee who believes good things will happen in the future, this employee is more likely to get that task done, get it done to a better result and take pleasure in getting it done.

The outcome of that very same task given to a pessimistic employee may be quite different. The pessimistic employee may find ways NOT to get the task done. He (or she) may create obstacles to getting that task done. He may even take some pleasure in the task NOT getting done.

Does that sound too outlandish?

Well, people tend to create the circumstances necessary to carry out what they believe will happen. They pull in the needed resources, they convince others to help as needed and they tend to have the resolve to overcome obstacles that get in the way.

If they generally believe things are not going to work out as expected, then they are more likely to accept reasons why resources aren’t available, they wonder why folks don’t rush in to help them and they lack the resolve to push through obstacles that may present themselves.

This is NOT some airy-fairy statement I’m making with this tip.

And I’m not saying a pessimistic person will not get things done. They very well may. But often they are getting things done over their own mental resistance to doing so.

The optimist will delight in the future being bright and doing things to bring that kind of future about.

So, how do we find out how optimistic an applicant is?

I think generally people will be honest about this character trait, so you could ask this simple question:

“On a scale of 1-10, how optimistic would you say you are about things? “10” would be extremely optimistic and “1” would be not optimistic at all.”

Whatever number your applicant gives you, then ask them to give you a couple of examples in their life as to how that level of optimism played out.

I realize you might bump into someone who is gleefully optimistic and they’re living in a fantasy world where nothing bad ever happens. But you’ll know when you encounter that person.

For the most part, a legitimately optimistic person will bring more productivity to your scene than a pessimist. And your staff (and you) will likely find them much easier to be around.


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How Well Do They Follow Instructions?

One of the three tests we administer is the Aptitude Test. This test measures the ability to follow instructions, both written and verbal.

Of the many we have tested, over half have failed. This failure rate is applicable to all industries and professions and is not specific to any demographic category.

Over half of those sitting down and taking a simple Aptitude test…fail.

I’ve spoken with hundreds of business owners and I do not need to do a special survey to know how important “following instructions” is. It’s vital.

And yet, it is a very weak area for many.

Why is that?

Well, I’ll offer a couple of reasons:

A great deal of time is spent in front of screens: TV screens, phone screens, computer screens, tablet screens. This may improve some skills for some, but for most, screens are a poor substitute for actual engagement with others and one’s environment.

The proliferation of drugs. Of all kinds. Medical and street drugs are easier to get and being taken with greater permissions. Drugs have side effects, one being a dulling effect on our ability to perceive present time. Present time is where instructions are carried out.

If you are not testing for the ability to follow instructions, we strongly urge you do so. Our main test is a personality test. Watch our three minute video on this test and when we call to go over the results, we’ll also go over the Aptitude Test with you.

In the next tip, I’ll give you a simple tool you can use with employees who are weak on following instructions.


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Who Is Controlling the Interview?

Well, the obvious answer is “you are.” You’re conducting the interview and you’re the one in control.

You’ve got some questions you want to ask, you want to discuss a few points on the applicant’s résumé and you want to dig in a little bit here and a little bit there to get a good idea of the person sitting across from you.

So it makes sense that you are controlling the interview.

And giving the applicant the opportunity to ask you any questions that she’d like — that’s always a good idea and gives some of the control of the interview over to her.

But what if we were to go a step further? A big step further.

What if you said the following to your applicant:

“Alice, from your answers today, I’ve got some good information about you and that’s very helpful. At this time, I’d like to turn the control of the interview over to you. You have complete control of the interview for the next few minutes. Go ahead.”

What will Alice say? What will she do?

Even the most prepared applicant has likely not been asked to take full control of an interview. We’re asking Alice to think quickly on her feet. We may learn how she’ll deal with brand new situations at work where she has no prior experience or training.

We’re interested in how quickly Alice takes control of the interview, but we’re also interested in how intelligently and creatively she does so.

It’s certainly not the end of the world if Alice stumbles a bit here and there as this is a pretty unique request being made of her.

However, what if Alice goes right into gear and comfortably and competently controls the interview for the next few minutes?

I do believe you’ve learned something quite valuable about your applicant.

And that is always our purpose in the hiring interview.


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Employment Gaps on the Résumé

The résumé you’re looking at says the following:

Acme Industries 2010 – 2014

Franklin Publishing 2014 – 2015

Looks reasonable, right?

Well, what if your applicant left Acme Industries in January of 2014 and then started with Franklin Publishing in December of 2014?

That’s a gap of just about a year.

It’s worth a question or two to determine what was happening during that length of time. Was the applicant job hunting for what he hoped was a better job? Was his industry downsizing quite a bit during that time period? Or was he just not aggressively searching for employment?

The key to this tip is to be a bit of a detective when it comes to looking over someone’s résumé. When you find gaps, even ones not so obvious, find out what was happening.

The reason could be innocuous or it could point up a character flaw. Either way, you should know the full story.


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Your Successful Actions File

If you’ve been conducting hiring interviews for some time, you’ve likely made two important discoveries:

You’ve found out what works in the hiring interview and
 you’ve discovered what doesn’t work.

Certain questions and certain types of questions seem to get you that extra information you need about the applicant.

A particular location in the building is more conducive to the interview.

You learned that, from time to time, bringing other employees into the hiring interview has been successful.

You might’ve discovered going the extra distance with a second and third interview was successful.

On the flip side you’ve likely tried things that didn’t pan out.

Maybe one type of phone interview rarely produced results for you.

Advertising in a particular local paper, although you thought it would be a great source for you, brought too many non-optimum candidates your way.

One particular employee seemed a poor choice to use for supplementary interviews.

Whatever the case may be — on both sides of the ledger — you’re going to learn what works and what doesn’t work. And you’ll learn about degrees of workability.

My recommendation:

Write it down.

Keep a file of your hiring successful and unsuccessful actions.

This would be for all phases of the hiring cycle. I focused on the interview here, but maybe one particular company provided more in-depth background checks than other companies in that field.

Perhaps a certain type of employee testing was far more effective than other types. And of course feel free to check out our employee testing service.

Whatever you discover, write it down.

I use a program called Evernote. There’s a free version of it as well as a paid one. The free one is probably all you’ll need. It allows you take ALL kinds of notes and these notes would then sync across all of your “devices” — your computer, your phone, your tablet. You’ll have access to all of your notes and be able to take additional notes from every device.

If not Evernote, there are plenty of other note taking applications. Here’s two more: Microsoft One Note and Google Keep.

If not any of those, then write them down in a notebook. Get one of those composition books at an office supply store or a Walmart and have a few pages for successful actions and a few pages for unsuccessful actions.

I like Evernote as it lets me make folders and then keep files inside of the folders and you can even create folders within folders.

Without getting fancy, this tip is simply about recording somewhere the actions and steps that you take during the hiring process that work and those that do not work.

You’ll find yourself reviewing these from time to time, and of course adding to them.

What if you turn the role of hiring over to someone else? How nice will it be that this individual can look over, even study your notes on this vital activity.

One last reason to write these things down:

Doing so can clarify your thoughts and potentially give you new ways to do certain things already proven successful.

There you have it. You’re learning a great deal over time…write it down. Review and share your notes. Rinse and repeat. Oh, I’ve wanted to say that for awhile now!



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Questions: Open-Ended Versus Closed-Ended

I started the Hiring Tips newsletter about nine years ago, and probably the largest subject area addressed is the hiring interview. Different ways to approach the interview; different subjects to discuss; different methods to learn more about your applicant.

Another approach to consider is the type of question to ask.

Closed-Ended questions can get you a brisk, often candid answer, but not a great deal of information beyond that immediate answer.

For example:

1) Do you do work well under pressure?

2) Would you prefer to work with more or less supervision?

3) Do you want to work after hours?

The open-ended versions of these would be:

1) Tell me a couple of situations when you were under considerable pressure.

You could then dig in and get specifics as to how your applicant handled these situations.

2) What was it like to work with a supervisor who gave you total freedom to do your job?

2a) What was it like to work with a supervisor who crowded you with orders and very close supervision?

Again, get more details from your applicant.

3) What kind of after-hours work have you done?

3a) What kind of after-hours work would you like to do here?

As is obvious from this last group of questions, you’re going to get considerably more information about your applicant.

This is one of those tips that is almost unnecessary to write. I wrote it because sometimes we are adversely affected by the fast pace of our world and it can be helpful to step back, take a deep breath, and word our interview questions with a view of getting a closer look at the applicant.


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