This is an interesting question to ask applicants. Asking this may not get what the previous employers would actually say, but it gives an interesting perspective on the applicant in front of you.
It could go like this:
“Alice, in looking over your résumé, your three previous employers were Acme Industries, AAA Insurance and Lehigh Construction. Let’s talk briefly about Acme Industries. How would your supervisor rate your performance there?”
After Alice answers, get her to elaborate some. Ask her how would her supervisor rate her performance as a team player; how would she rate her competence; how well she got along with others; how well she aligned with the goals of the company.
You can see where I’m going here. What are the different areas or qualities that are important to you? Once you ask the general question of how would your supervisor at Company X rate your performance, break it down into the different qualities and competencies that you are looking for.
Then move on to AAA Insurance and Lehigh Construction.
This is a bit of a two-fold approach: 1) you’re looking for your applicant’s perspective on how they were viewed by their supervisor and 2) you’re likely to get a fairly honest answer. The applicant doesn’t know if you’ll be contacting their previous supervisor or not, so they’ll want to stay as close to the actual scene as they can.
Now you may get an answer like: “Well, my supervisor at Acme Industries hated me. He gave me assignments he knew I couldn’t complete in the time given. He made me stay overtime and I rarely got paid for the overtime. He criticized how I dressed. It was a horrible scene.”
But, more than likely, you’ll get some really good insights into your applicant. It may take some time, covering three previous employers and several specific performance areas, but it could very well be worth your time.
As the law varies in each area, please check with an attorney to ensure you are applying these tips within the law.
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