In The Workplace

We were told that you (the columnist) are personally known to a job applicant. She passed a series of interviews and other tests resulting in her becoming one of our three shortlisted candidates. In her curriculum vitae (CV), you were listed as one of her character references who can vouch for her. Please confirm. — Orange Juice.

Since the rise of social media, I’ve interacted with hundreds of people who have contacted me for various reasons, mainly to seek advice about their workplace issues. I’ve not met them personally except for about 2% who agreed to pay for my services for a lengthy in-person and deep dive management consultation.

Your applicant is one of 98% who asked me for my insights on certain issues about human resources and other related issues. I gave her answers based on my experience. She often reciprocates by liking and sharing my posts.

Other than that, I can’t remember meeting her in person or dealing with her for long, especially during the last three years of the pandemic.

With that in mind, I can’t give you any positive or negative impressions about her. I wish I could help her but I just can’t do it, other than what I have said above. But don’t take my word for it. Don’t decide by relying solely on my statements. Give her a chance by vetting her credentials through other means.

Also, everything depends much on her ranking in your shortlist of three candidates. If she’s number one on your list and the rest are kilometers away, then it’s better to double check her experience and capacity with her other character references. Conversely, if she’s number two or three in your list, then better to consider the number one candidate, subject to your usual screening process.

Common sense dictates that you start doing background verification of your number one candidate. You don’t jump to checking the background of the number two or three candidates unless the number one choice is disqualified for some reason.

The best character reference is someone who can give objective information about the applicant. That person could be a third party like a former boss, a work colleague or a university teacher. The more recent the relationship between the job applicant and the character reference, the better.

Much depends on the identity of the character references, who can be anyone other than a family member or best friend. However, the bigger issue in checking character references is not the answers they’ll give you, but rather the questions that you’re posing to them.

If you don’t ask the right questions, you’ll only get the wrong answers. Fortunately, there are a lot of people out there who are willing to help applicants if the circumstances are right. That’s why, it’s imperative for applicants to secure first the permission of their character references before naming them in their CVs so that there are no surprises.

In the case of your applicant, she failed to obtain my permission. If she had approached me, I would have discouraged her from naming me as one of her references.

Moving on, what are the right questions that a prospective employer should ask from the applicant’s character reference? There are only four basic questions. The fewer questions you ask, the better as most people are too busy to answer queries even by telephone or e-mail.

The key questions are as follows:

One, what is your professional relationship with the applicant? This question provides the context for the recommendation. If it’s a boss-subordinate relationship, the expected answer should relate to the capacity and work performance of the applicant. Also, it validates the information given by the applicant to the prospective employer.

Two, how would you describe the applicant’s capacity to do the job? This question should be linked to your job vacancy at hand. Be specific as much as possible as to the job content and specific job title. Trust begets trust. If you’re truthful, you can expect to get accurate and detailed answers from the character reference.

Three, would you rehire the applicant in your organization? If not, would you hire the person in your current company or elsewhere? This is the real test for the character, integrity and employability of the job applicant.

Last, is there something that you would like to tell us regarding the applicant? This is the joker in the pack; it’s also known as the shotgun clause question. It allows the character references to conclude their statements by giving related information not covered by the first three questions.

Don’t force the issue by requiring the character reference to execute a formal document.


Learn from Rey Elbo’s “Superior Subordinate Supervision” program to help train your line supervisors and managers. Or chat with him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or e-mail or via