Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

It's not always easy getting employers to talk about a former worker's performance. But if you can, it can offer valuable insight to help you determine if a job candidate might be the right fit for your organization.

Checking the candidate's references and developing a list of open-ended questions to ask his or her past employer could help you glean valuable information about the applicant.

"When you do a reference check you become like a detective," explains Miriam Berger, talent acquisition specialist at A Hire Authority LLC in Deerfield, Illinois, a contract recruiter. You're listening for nuances in what they're saying and what they're not saying about the candidate, she notes.

The references provided also can offer insight into the candidate, says Berger. For instance, has he provided just friends and family or taken the time to cultivate good work references?

Berger may ask for the names of three past managers, and when she reaches them she'll ask if the candidate let them know she'd be calling. "It tells me if they're serious about the job and if they prepared," she notes.

Explain the job. She'll also give the reference a brief summary of what the candidate will be doing. "A lot of times things will come out when you're explaining the job," she notes.

Get multiple references, because not every past employer will speak willingly.

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"More and more companies are not really giving information on past employees," says Keith Gutstein, a partner at the law firm of Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck LLP in Woodbury.

Less is OK. He advises his clients to offer minimal information, such as dates of employment and last position held. "You can't go wrong with saying very little," he says.

Because many employers are reluctant to speak, don't consider that a blemish against the applicant, adds Beth Fagin, an employment consultant with Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates Inc. in Syosset, a human resources consulting firm. It may be company policy not to provide more detailed information.

Most employers ask for three references knowing they may only receive information from one or two, Fagin notes.

Pitfalls. Still, if a past employer is willing to offer details, you should avoid asking any questions that could be viewed as "inquiring about someone's membership in a protected class," such as religion or national origin, advises Gutstein.

For example, you don't want to ask if the worker took time off for observance of any religious holidays, he notes. If you have attendance concerns, you can go to the candidate, explain the job's hours and ask if there are any problems with reporting to work during those hours, Gutstein suggests.

Keep all questions business-oriented and relevant to the job, he says.

Also stick to open-ended questions, such as what are the candidate's greatest strengths, suggests Heather Huhman, president of Come Recommended, a Maryland-based content marketing and digital PR consultancy for job search and HR technologies.

Let references take their time to answer questions as fully as they're willing, she advises. The more you get the reference talking, the more you'll learn about the candidate.

Standardize your reference check strategy, suggests Huhman. Create a script and list of questions to help ensure you're getting all the information you need during each call. Remember, the references you're calling are busy too.

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Focus on both a candidate's strengths and weaknesses. References are often reluctant to provide the latter, but you can soften your approach by asking what could the applicant have done better, suggests Fagin.

If they say something you don't want to hear, weigh the responses from all the references. They may balance out.