Reference Check Questions You Should Ask During Hiring
Although not always a strictly objective source of information, speaking to references can provide valuable information about a candidate—provided you know the proper reference check questions to ask. After sections detailing educational history, work experience, and skills, most candidates will include a selection of personal and professional references in their resumes. Some employers require the submission of at least two or three references of each type.
In this post, we'll delve into these checks, explore why they matter for a prospective employer, and start providing some important tips for making the most of every conversation with a reference. To start, let's consider what these checks involve that can help you gain a complete picture of a candidate.
What Is a Reference Check?
When you hire a background check company to vet a job candidate, you usually deal with public records requests or information verification. Most often, this involves accessing public records on your behalf (such as criminal records, a credit report, or driving records) or verifying information that the candidate provided on their resume. This usually includes work history, education, and other relevant credentials. A background check with employment history verification is a standard tool that crosses the boundaries between these categories.
However, reference checks don’t fit precisely into either of these categories. They are neither straightforward public record searches about a candidate nor verifications of critical details such as job titles or college degrees. Instead, checking references is a hiring manager’s chance to speak with someone who knows the candidate well. Ideally, this provides an opportunity to discuss the candidate’s character, work ethic, strengths and weaknesses, approach to teamwork, and other potentially important details.
The specific questions in a reference check will vary depending on whom you plan to interview and what that person's relationship is to the candidate. Many employers incorrectly assume that reference interviews and work history verifications are the same because the latter involves professional references. Because of this misconception, they expect that the most critical questions to ask will concern details such as job title, employment dates, and job responsibilities. While such issues as the start and end dates of previous jobs may come up with some personal references, such as when a reference is a former manager or employer, they aren't typical.
The core benefit of reference interview questions is how they open the door to more subjective answers. During employment history checks, past employers are often hesitant to provide answers to questions that aren’t objective. Discussing matters of opinion—by speaking about a past employee’s work ethic, for instance—can open up a past employer to a defamation claim. As a result, work history verifications usually focus on verifying resume details and little else.
When a candidate lists someone on their reference list, there is implied permission for a hiring manager to ask more subjective reference check questions—and for the reference to answer those questions candidly.
Does Every Employer Ask for References?
No, not every business requests references, as they might ask for a candidate's work history. Sometimes, the employer may not think such questions would be relevant to their decision. For example, a construction manager hiring builders might only want to know whether a candidate has the appropriate licenses or experience. At other times, employers may not have enough time to contact a reference for questions. Such time constraints can lead to riskier procedures, such as checking a candidate's social media page.
However, reference checks are more common in business situations where company culture and a good fit within the team matter more. Some employers ask if a candidate can provide references, but following through is worthwhile.
Are Reference Checks Truly Necessary?
For many employers, the answer is “yes.” For those concerned with selecting reliable and trustworthy candidates, a reference check can provide some key insights. Keep in mind that most listed references know they've had their contact details shared with an employer—so you might receive some biased information. However, you can learn essential information by asking the proper reference check questions.
Contacting multiple references—and using similar questions along the way—also allows you to identify inconsistencies. If two people with a similar relationship to the applicant have something different to say, you may want to drill down further on that subject. It could be a simple mistake, or it could be a red flag.
These subjective assessments provide essential contextual information for employers to create a complete picture of their applicants.
Optimizing Your Reference Checks
Because the reference check process involves contacting individuals directly, it can be tedious and time-consuming. That hassle is why many employers may choose to skip the effort altogether. However, there are ways to improve this workflow. Working with a third-party team such as ours is one way; you can outsource the contact process and receive a report on the answers received later.
Developing a reliable and repeatable list of questions will also help streamline the process. Creating a reference check “script” avoids wasting time and gathering the necessary information. So how do you get that information?
10 Best Questions to Ask References
Now that we understand the background of reference checks let’s explore the types of questions that offer the most value during this step.
1. What is/was your relationship with the candidate?
Establishing to whom you're speaking and how they relate to the candidate is always an excellent first step. You may talk to people with very diverse relationships with the applicant.
Job seekers sometimes list past bosses, managers, or supervisors as references, but not always. Other possibilities include colleagues or current team members; subordinates or direct reports; mentors; and individuals they’ve volunteered with. Sometimes, the individual is simply a long-time friend of the applicant. For candidates currently in school or recently graduated, you may contact professors, coaches, guidance counselors, or even school administrators.
Asking about the relationship upfront will allow you to establish how well the individual knows your candidate. The answer also illuminates more about the scope and nature of their relationship, such as how long they’ve known each other. These key details will help you orient the rest of the conversation.
2. What is your impression of the candidate?
Moving quickly to a broad question with an open-ended answer lets the interviewee speak freely about the candidate. Asking this question can give you many important details about the candidate’s character, such as personality, work style, fundamental skills, etc. Doing so means you won't need to ask specific reference check questions covering each category.
Asking a broad question can also help establish a laidback, conversational atmosphere. Putting a reference at ease quickly can lead to more candid thoughts. Don't relax so much that you forget to take notes for follow-up questions later.
3. Which main strengths and weaknesses do you think the candidate has?
While asking about your interviewee’s overall impression of the candidate may naturally touch on strengths and weaknesses, it’s worth asking this question directly. Learn what a reference has to say about a candidate’s best or worst attributes in job roles. Doing so offers a window into the candidate’s past work performance and can help to indicate how well they might perform in your vacancy.
It’s helpful to hear what a candidate believes their strengths and weaknesses are, but candidates are biased. A third party may more often be accurate and valuable in their assessments. Answers could spotlight good reasons to hire, red flags that should prompt you to stay away, or areas for improvement that you should know in advance.
4. What can you tell me about this candidate’s teamwork mentality?
It’s essential to ask a question about your candidate’s ability to work with others and function as part of a team. While teamwork and collaboration are more critical to some jobs than others, they can affect everything from company culture and staff morale to communication across the workplace. Is the individual a good team player or a solo worker striving for personal glory and recognition?
5. How would you define the candidate’s preferred work style?
Professionals work differently. Some love a collaborative, bustling environment, while others are more solitary and prefer to be left to self-direct work. Asking references for insights into a candidate’s work style helps you consider whether their approach suits your organization well.
For instance, if your office runs on a schedule of regular meetings and check-ins, a less social and more independent worker might not be the ideal fit. Likewise, someone who craves a social work environment might not be the right candidate for a remote job. Use this question to determine whether your candidate is suited to how you run your workplace.
6. Tell me about a time you were impressed by the candidate’s work.
“Work ethic” is a broad term that can mean anything from reliable hard work to persistence, punctuality, and overall professionalism. Rather than asking about a candidate’s work ethic, try asking the reference to recall a time when they were impressed by the candidate.
The story they choose to tell could reveal the candidate’s work style and a habit of going above and beyond to complete a job or a major accomplishment. A specific anecdote will tell you more about your candidate’s work ethic than the answer to a broader query about work ethic.
7. If I hire this candidate, what advice would you give me to help them thrive?
Asking about “weaknesses” creates a defensive atmosphere, so re-frame your approach to be one about support and advice.
This question is vital: it can prompt an array of interesting responses. Some references may speak to specific skills or proficiencies that would help candidates reach their highest potential. Such information could guide your onboarding strategies or signal the need for training plans for the candidate if you hire them. Other answers might lead to tips on effectively managing the candidate or warning signs about how hard they are to manage.
8. Would you recommend this candidate for the job?
In most cases, job seekers choose professional references who will speak positively on their behalf. As a result, the answer to this question is unlikely to be “no”—as long as the candidate asked permission to list the professional reference and is on good terms with that individual. Hearing someone make a case for why a candidate is worthy of a job offer may help you decide whether your views align with that stance.
9. Other reference check questions
There are other reference check questions you might ask depending on the reference, their relationship to the candidate, and the information you glean from other questions you’ve asked. For instance, if you’re talking to a manager or supervisor, it’s worth asking about job title, responsibilities, dates of employment, reasons for leaving, and other employment verification details. If you’re talking to a past coworker, you might ask for a more “on-the-ground” perspective on what it was like to work with the candidate.
Alternatively, if an interviewee lists specific weaknesses that you find particularly troubling—such as communication issues, procrastination, or difficulty taking direction from managers—you might ask for elaboration or enquire into how those behaviors affected job performance.
10. How to Evaluate a Reference Check
Ultimately, there are many ways to formulate questions to ask references. For some types of employers, these questions will work very well. Some tweaking and fine-tuning towards more industry-specific outlooks might be necessary for others. Regardless, the essential consideration as you move through the interview process is how you will evaluate the answers in real time.
Are you getting the information you wanted from the reference check questions you’re asking? Is the reference not as forthcoming as you expected them to be? Asking yourself these questions throughout the interview can help you decide whether to adjust the line of questioning, end the interview, or ask follow-up questions to fill in specific details.
Which questions are asked in a reference check?
Employment reference check questions can vary and may touch upon an array of qualities, including character, dependability, work ethic, integrity, teamwork mentality, and past job details. Consider all these categories and more when you check references.
How do you conduct a reference check?
Unlike a background report or credit check, there is no automatic way to perform this procedure.
Most employers will ask candidates to provide a list of two or three professional references on their job application or attach a list to their resume or cover letter. After selecting a few final candidates for the job, the hiring manager will contact the references—usually over the phone—and conduct a brief interview incorporating their top reference check questions. At backgroundchecks.com, we can also carry out reference interviews on your behalf.
What is included in a reference check?
The specific reference check questions that hiring managers choose to ask about a candidate will vary depending on the position, the industry, the skills or experience needed to succeed in the role, and the identity of the reference. We offer a list of recommended questions to ask when checking references. Remember that this is not the process that allows for inquiring into a candidate's criminal history or any recent criminal record. You cannot circumvent the background check process by asking such questions to personal references.
What are some possible red flags to note from a reference interviewee?
This issue can be highly subjective. However, an unwillingness to speak about the candidate or hesitance with details may indicate that a reference has something they don't wish to disclose about the applicant. Inconsistencies in responses between references you asked the same questions about the candidate should also arouse your suspicion, as should any indication that your applicant (or another reference) was untruthful about something.
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments