A job candidate may ace the interview, but that doesn’t always make them a perfect hire. You can better understand an applicant’s compatibility with your company by checking their references, especially if you ask the right questions. We’ll share 32 reference check questions that focus on a candidate’s performance and what it was like to manage and work alongside them. These questions can help ensure a successful hire and a valuable new team member.
What is a reference check?
A reference check is when an employer reaches out to people who can shed light on a job candidate’s strengths and speak to their qualifications. These contacts tend to be previous employers but also may include university professors, longtime colleagues and other people familiar with the applicant’s work.
As an employer, you may find that reference checks help paint a full picture of a potential hire. Unfortunately, people lie on their resumes sometimes and present qualifications they don’t actually possess. If you ask your applicant’s professional references the right questions, you’ll learn more about the candidate’s skills and qualifications than you would from a traditional job interview alone.
Reference check goals include the following:
- Confirm the written or verbal information the potential employee provided.
- Learn about the candidate’s skills and strengths from someone other than the candidate.
- Gather information about the applicant’s job performance in past roles to predict their success at your company.
With all of this information, you should have an easier time choosing which candidates to move forward in the hiring process.
Reference checks can help you avoid hiring horror stories and costly personnel and management headaches.
What information should you ask a reference?
When developing your list of reference check questions, you should determine the information you want to confirm about the job candidate. You may be interested in the references’ insights about the candidate on these topics:
- Job performance
- Ability to understand and follow directions
- Ability to work well as part of a team
- Standards for office behavior and ethics
- Interests, specialties and demeanor
- Ability to give directions and ensure that subordinates follow them (if they’re applying for a leadership role)
- Anything else that stands out on the candidate’s resume or emerged during their job interview
Some of these topics are more appropriate to discuss with professional references; others may be more suitable to ask personal references. For example, a former supervisor can speak to how well a candidate operates as part of a team, while a close friend or mentor can describe the candidate’s interests, specialties and demeanor.
Just as there are specific questions you should never ask a job candidate, there are questions you can’t ask a reference. You must only ask questions that pertain to the job; inappropriate questions can subject your company to discrimination claims.
Consider the following problematic questions you should never ask references:
- Anything related to demographics or personal information: Don’t ask about a candidate’s sexuality, age, religion or similar matters.
- Anything related to personal health: Don’t ask about a candidate’s medical history or the existence of disabilities. You can ask whether the candidate is capable of performing the tasks the job requires.
- Anything related to credit scores: Although you can request a credit score from a job applicant, the Fair Credit Reporting Act bars you from asking references about an applicant’s credit score.
- Anything related to family: Don’t ask whether a candidate has (or plans to have) children or a spouse. If you worry that a job applicant with a family might not have enough time for the job, ask references if they think the job’s time demands will suit the candidate.
Gathering references is an important step to ensuring you make the best hiring decisions for your vacant positions. Check out these other tips for hiring the best employees to build your team as effectively as possible.
32 reference check questions to ask
Now that you know what information to request from a reference, you’re ready to develop your list of reference check questions. Below are 32 common reference check questions to use. You may think some don’t apply to your company, but you should speak with your hiring manager before eliminating any questions.
Introductory reference check questions
- Is there any information you and/or your company are unwilling or unable to give me about the candidate?
- If you can’t share any information with me, can you connect me with any former employees who worked closely with the candidate?
- Can you confirm the candidate’s employment start and end dates, salary and job title?
- What is your relationship to the candidate, and how did you first meet?
Reference check questions for getting to know the reference
- For how long have you worked at your company?
- For how long have you had your current job title?
- For how long did you work with the candidate, and in what capacities?
- Can you think of any reasons I should be speaking with another reference instead of yourself?
Performance-related reference check questions
- What positions did the candidate have while at your company?
- In what roles did the candidate start and end?
- What did these roles entail?
- What were the most challenging parts of the candidate’s roles at your company?
- How did the candidate face these challenges and other obstacles?
- What are the candidate’s professional strengths, and how did they benefit your company?
- In what areas does the candidate need improvement?
- Do you think the candidate is qualified for this job, and why or why not?
Reference check questions to ask managers
- For how long did you directly or indirectly manage the candidate?
- In what ways was managing the candidate easy, and in what ways was it challenging?
- How did the candidate grow during their time working under you?
- What suggestions do you have for managing this candidate?
Reference check questions to ask employees who reported to your candidate
- For how long did the candidate manage you, and in what capacity?
- What did you like most and least about the candidate’s management style?
- How did the candidate’s management style help you grow and learn?
- How could the candidate have better managed you and your co-workers?
Reference check questions to ask co-workers
- For how long were you among the candidate’s colleagues, and in what capacity?
- What did you like most and least about working with the candidate?
- How did you grow and learn while working with the candidate?
- How did the candidate support you and your other colleagues?
- In what ways could the candidate have been a better co-worker to you and your colleagues?
Reference check questions about ethics and behavior
- Why did the candidate leave your company?
- Did this candidate’s behavior lead to any workplace conflicts or instances of questionable ethics?
- If the opportunity arose, would you be willing and/or able to rehire the candidate, and why or why not?
Just as you can speak with your hiring manager about potentially removing certain questions from this list, you can discuss adding other questions. As long as any additional questions shed light on how your candidate would perform during employment with your company and you don’t ask for personal information, there’s a good chance you’re asking the right questions.
Some candidates may need more scrutiny than others. Some employers conduct background checks to verify job candidates and their credentials.
How to conduct a reference check
If you decide to check references for new hires, implement a formal procedure at your company. This will streamline the process of obtaining your candidates’ references. From start to finish, your hiring team should follow these steps to conduct a thorough reference check:
- Decide how many references to obtain from each applicant. Two or three should suffice.
- Include a section for references in every job application. Ask candidates to include their references’ full names, phone numbers, email addresses and relationship to the candidate.
- Get permission to contact the reference. Include a clause in your job application that the applicant signs to give you permission to contact their references. You should also email a reference to get their permission to ask them questions about the candidate.
- Decide whether you’ll conduct your reference checks by phone or email. While sending questions by email will save your company time — especially if you have a standard list of questions you send to all references — verbal checks via phone or video chat, or even in-person meetings, can offer you a clearer understanding of a candidate.
- Develop a list of reference check questions. Consider the list above to determine potential questions.
- Watch out for red flags. Not every candidate is entirely truthful on their resume, so do your research before contacting a reference.
- Establish a standard note-taking process. Don’t expect to remember every single thing you discussed during a reference check. Work with your hiring team to develop a note-taking format and process the whole team can understand and use.
If an employer discovers that a job candidate misrepresented their qualifications or lied on their resume, they can rescind the job offer.
Reference checks help employers make good hiring decisions
Reference checks give you a chance to fill gaps that arise while you’re getting to know a candidate during the interview process. Talking to an applicant’s personal references can tell you if they’re the right fit and help you avoid a costly bad hire. By allowing you to discover the candidate’s management style or determining how they’ll respond under pressure, reference checks can tell you much more than an interview alone.
Once you’ve conducted reference checks on all of your job candidates, you should have all of the information you need to decide which one is best for the job and reach out with a formal job offer letter. If the candidate accepts, congratulate them and yourself — and start your onboarding process.
Natalie Hamingson contributed to this article.