What questions have proven the most insightful when speaking with a prospective hire's references? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Adam Dean, Founder and President, Dean Executive Search, on Quora:

It's crucial for everyone to know the best questions that references can be asked. If you're hiring someone, knowing these will help get you the clearest insight into the candidate. And if you're applying for a job -- as just about everyone does at some point -- knowing these questions can help you prepare your references, giving them time to think about what they may be asked.

Being in the business of hiring people full time as head of an executive search firm, I know that reference checks are make-or-break. I engage in 360-degree referencing, which means speaking with the candidate's former colleagues, bosses, and reports. I never offer candidates a job until I've spoken, at length, to six of their references.

The vast majority of hiring managers do check references, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Part of the process is about getting the truth. Three-quarters of HR managers have caught lies on resumes, a CareerBuilder survey found. Sometimes, these lies are discovered simply through checking facts, like previous job titles and schools candidates graduated from. But sometimes they're about specific roles a candidate played within the company, and quality reference checks help suss those out.

Here are the types of questions that I've found lead to the most honest, raw and unadulterated perspectives on candidates' competencies.

How did this candidate approach a specific challenging task?

By framing a question this way, you're asking the reference to move away from generalities (like "good worker" and "likable leader"), and into concrete examples. Learn how the candidate faced a task, what steps she or he took, and what the results were.

Hiring managers can also choose the specific examples that they want to know about. When I led a search for a company that was moving into digital commerce, I asked the candidate's references this question with a focus on her work growing the company's e-commerce function.

How was this work received by others along the way?

Positive workplace relationships are essential in any industry for attracting and retaining employees, increasing productivity, and more. So in hiring, you want someone who knows how to build them. And again, it's important to be specific. That's why it's helpful to ask references how the candidate's work on a task was received by others.

One reference I checked with gave a fantastic answer about the candidate: "What she cared about was painting a clear picture for others to follow, while obtaining the buy-in of others so that her army would follow her. In a world of self-promotion, she stood out for her promotion of others."

She got the job.

How did the candidate help turn a B-player into an A-player?

Great employees, at any level, help bring out the best in those they work with. They inspire great work. Certainly, there are very talented people who act more like "lone wolves." But when you're looking for the best of the best, you want a candidate who can achieve and improve the results of others on the team.

When I led a search for an investment banking firm, a reference answered this question by citing the candidate's devotion to "outliers." The candidate had carved out regular mentorship sessions with a member of the team who showed great potential but lacked a background in the industry. The candidate brought this employee up to speed, the reference told me.

We hired the candidate.

How would you describe the candidate's ability to achieve long-term goals?

Businesses today are constantly in flux, responding to rapid changes in technology and new competition that can disrupt them overnight. So it's easy to stay busy with a short-term focus. But even in this environment, excellent candidates set long-term goals, frequently take steps to progress toward them, and ultimately achieve them.

References should be able to look back and see how well the candidates avoided the trap of "short-termism." One reference I interviewed explained that although the business "operated in a fairly chaotic environment," the candidate "was able to display strategic orientation by creating thoughtful long-range plans that kept her team focused on the next 12 to 36 months... We benefited from her ability to think about how to set up the company for success over the long term."

She was hired.

Some references won't have clear answers to some of these questions. That doesn't automatically remove the candidate from consideration. But if all, or even most, of their references can't think of concrete answers, it raises concerns.

In the end, no matter how impressive the candidate's resume or how well they do in an interview, references can give you the clearest window into their experience, helping you make an informed decision.

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Published on: May 6, 2019