What to Ask Former Employers
There are no perfect questions for every reference and every candidate, but in general you want to ask very open-ended questions that force the respondent to tell a story. Yes and No questions like, "So did you like having Teresa as your nanny?" are pretty worthless. Be Barbara Walters! Be Oprah! Ask information gathering questions that lead to more questions such as:
- "What three things did you like best about working with Teresa?"
- "What two things do you think she taught your child that you never would have thought to teach him?" (For instance, words in another language, how to knit, or how to play a new game or sing a different nursery rhyme.)
- "Tell me about a time when you needed to correct or change the way Teresa handled something with the kids? What was the situation? How did you approach her and what was her response?" Any question that begins with "Tell me about a time ... " is usually a good one.
- Another way to get more details is to follow-up dead-end answers with, "Can you give me an example?" Say you ask, "How did Teresa handle criticism?" and her old boss replies, "Oh just peachy! No problems." Your response should be, "Can you give me an example of a time you criticized her and how she reacted?"
Here's a reference checking rule of thumb: You'll rarely, if ever, be given a reference that doesn't gush about the person in question. That's because no one in her right mind will list a reference that's going to bad-mouth her. Most people will readily gossip about a former employee once that person is gone but are oddly reluctant to say anything negative when it's 'on the record.' Therefore you have to be creative enough to unearth the fallible human being behind the angel you'll hear about time and again. You're not trying to air dirty laundry here—your goal is to attempt to understand your candidate's weaknesses, so you can decide if they matter to you.
One way to find out is to bluntly inquire, "What are Teresa's weaknesses?" If that fails to illicit anything except, "Oh, I just can't think of any!" try asking, "If you had a magic wand, what three things would you change about Teresa?" Assure the reference that your conversation is completely confidential and that everyone has room for improvement, whether it's their handwriting, choice of perfume, or putting the dishes in the washer the wrong way.
In all, a thorough background and reference check should cost you no more than $100 and two to three hours on the phone. It's not a big deal, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. Choosing a nanny is a big decision that tremendously impacts the life of your child, so it's no time to be shy. Ask as many questions from as many people as you can, so you can rest assured that your new nanny is the best one for your family.