15 Critical Questions to Ask When Checking References

Illustration of a character sitting at a desk and speaking on their phone

Trying to select the perfect references to hopefully sing their praises to potential employers is something most jobseekers dread. Hiring managers often seem just as reluctant to deal with references, either doing the bare minimum of fact-checking or ignoring them completely.

Employers who fail to conduct proper reference checks are taking a big risk, however.

A 2019 survey by Robert Half, an international staffing firm, revealed that senior managers removed ‘one in three job candidates from consideration for a position with their company’ after checking references.

That follows with what CareerBuilder reported in a 2017 survey, that 33% of companies stuck with a ‘bad hire’ discovered that the candidate had lied about their qualifications. Those bad hires led to a loss of productivity, diminished work quality and the eventual hassle of hiring and training yet another new employee.

In other words, making a couple of short phone calls can save you a lot of trouble down the road.

Conducting a reference check can be a bit of a minefield these days, with the danger of litigation looming for saying the wrong thing about a former employee.

There may also be laws in your area limiting what you can and can’t ask.

Once you get the chance to speak with a candidate’s previous manager or colleague, you’ll want to make the most of the time they grant you. To guide you through the process, here are 15 critical questions to ask references, divided into 4 different categories.

Basic Questions

Though reference checks are often done at the end of the interview process, many companies conduct a preliminary check of some basic facts before spending additional time on the candidate. This can help you weed out obviously fraudulent or problematic résumés before the interview process begins.

These four questions are useful for that quick fact-check, or as the introduction to more in-depth questions.

1. ‘Can you confirm the dates of the candidate’s employment with your company?’

Even companies with restrictive policies on reference questions will confirm whether the candidate worked for them.

Since skills-based CVs and other modern formats don’t necessarily list dates of employment, you’ll want to get that information from the referee. The most impressive entry on the candidate’s résumé may turn out to be a job they only held onto for six months.

2. ‘What is your name, job title, and how did that relate to the candidate’s position at the firm?’

Don’t assume the receptionist transferred you to the right number or that the guy who answered the phone with ‘This is Bill’ isn’t one of four different employees named Bill at the company. Verify that his identity and job title match what the candidate listed.

It’s also important to clarify their work relationship. A reference described as a manager could be the candidate’s former boss or an executive in a different department who is acting as more of a character reference. Tailor your questions to address the skills, qualities or work product that the referee has direct knowledge of.

3. ‘What was the candidate’s official job title and what were their main responsibilities?’

This is an essential question to ask referees, as we’ve learned that one of the most common mistakes candidates make on their CV is lying about their credentials. They may have given themselves a more impressive-sounding job title or exaggerated the level of responsibilities they had at their previous companies, so it’s wise to confirm this with a knowledgeable source.

Don’t always assume the worst, however. Ask your candidate about any minor discrepancies that may not have been done with ill intent. They simply might not remember their exact jargon-filled job title from 10 years ago, or they may have simplified it for clarity.

4. ‘Were any formal disciplinary actions taken against the candidate?’

Serious matters like stealing or violence typically result in termination, so the disciplinary actions you hear about will likely be lesser offences. It is still important to find out if the employee had a verbal altercation with a customer or wrote an unflattering diatribe about their company on social media. The hiring team can then decide if this is a deal-breaker, or if it’s worth asking the candidate for their side of the story.

Be aware that not every employer can or will respond to this question. Some states in the US, for example, only allow you to ask if the candidate broke any laws.

Skills-Focused Questions

If you’re able to speak to a referee who is willing and able to give you more in-depth information, you’ll want to integrate one or more skills-based questions. Essentially, you want to know how well the candidate did their job, and this can include questions about professional awards, innovative products they created, or desirable soft skills like time management and initiative.

5. ‘Was the candidate given additional responsibilities or promoted at any time during their employment?’

If you’re looking for a worker bee-type for a data entry position, you might be fine with someone who did solid work for 10 years in the same role. A candidate who took on additional responsibilities and rewrote their own job description to meet the needs of a changing industry, however, would be a better fit for an ambitious startup.

Ask for a brief outline of the hierarchy as well. A candidate who’s learned all they can from two years at a small company with no advancement opportunities is demonstrating their ambition by now seeking employment at your multinational firm.

6. ‘What was one of the candidate’s biggest accomplishments during their tenure at your company?’

Some of the best questions to ask references are the same as the open-ended interview questions you put to the candidate. At its simplest, asking about accomplishments can act as confirmation of any awards or positive reviews. It can also tell you something about what the candidate values if their answer differs from their boss’ response.

Ultimately, you want to know if this prospective employee goes above and beyond their regular duties. Do they display initiative? Do they have creative ideas that make the company more profitable?

7. ‘Do you think the candidate is qualified for this job?’

Give the referee some detail about your company and the responsibilities of the job. Since you might only get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, be prepared to ask follow-up questions like ‘How well do they know the accounting software they’’’ be using?’ or ‘Are their second-language skills sharp enough to land international clients?’.

If there’s something specific that you suspect might be lacking in the candidate, you can also rephrase the original question. You might want to ask if the referee feels their former protégé has the patience to deal with difficult employees or the initiative to work on their own without supervision.

8. ‘What are some of the candidate’s strengths?’

Most interviewers ask a jobseeker to describe their strengths.

This is another instance where it can be useful to compare the referee’s answer to their former employee’s. If the candidate talked extensively about their negotiation skills and the referee only says they were punctual and organised, that’s a definite red flag.

Some hiring managers might want to ask about weaknesses, but a candidate’s hand-picked reference probably won’t be willing to list a bunch of negatives. A simple, ‘No one is perfect, so what is one thing you think they could improve on?’ is more likely to get an honest response.

9. ‘The candidate will be supervising 50 people in their new role. Can you give us an example of a time they resolved a conflict between their employees?’

It’s easy enough to say someone is a good leader, but it means a lot more if they can give an example. Asking for an anecdote about workplace conflict resolution will help illustrate their skill in difficult situations, and it may also reveal other aspects of their character like compassion or integrity. You can adapt this question for candidates applying for non-supervisory roles as well, to gauge how they might interact with their colleagues.

Company Culture Questions

Hiring teams now realise that a candidate’s qualifications aren’t the only thing that makes them the right person for the job. It’s also important to discover if they will fit in well with their colleagues and the work environment.

A rules-oriented, cubicle-dwelling introvert may do amazing work at their current job but probably won’t thrive in a chaotic department of creatives using shared workspace.

10. ‘What was it like to work with the candidate?’

Ideally, the referee will find this easy to answer. A résumé can list skills and qualifications, but talking to an actual coworker can reveal a lot more about the candidate’s work style, personality, communication skills, and how well they collaborate with their colleagues.

11. ‘Does the candidate prefer to work alone or as part of a team?’

This is a good question, even if you’re doing a personal or character reference check. Whether the referee works in another department, volunteers for the same organisation, or only knows the candidate outside of work, they have an idea of how they operate. Is their mantra ‘if you want it done right, do it yourself’ or do they more when surrounded by people who inspire them?

12. ‘What kind of environment do you think the candidate would thrive in?’

This is another question that can serve a dual purpose. You’ll get an idea if the candidate’s ideal work environment meshes with your company’s vibe.

If you’re speaking with the candidate’s former supervisor, they might also give you some insight into how best to manage them in a less-than-ideal setting and bring out their best work.

Closing Questions

These questions provide a good way to wrap up the discussion, especially if the referee has limited time, and you want to get one more valuable query addressed.

13. ‘Why did the candidate leave their job at your company?’

The candidate’s reason for leaving can tell you a lot about their ambitions, work ethic, ability to get along with others, potential longevity at your company, and more.

How the referee’s response differs from the candidate’s can also be revealing. If they reply with something that sounds like a carefully worded statement given in the candidate’s exit interview, try a follow-up question like, ‘Do you think there was more to it?’.

14. ‘Barring company policies, would you rehire this candidate?’

This is a good question to squeeze in if the referee is only willing to give basic factual information like job title and years of employment. Even a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer says a lot, especially depending on how quickly that positive or negative response is given.

15. ‘Can you recommend someone else I should talk to about the candidate?’

The candidate may have listed their managers from three different jobs, but you’re hoping to learn a bit more about their last gig. The executive you speak to can hopefully forward you on to a supervisor who had more day-to-day contact with their employee. You also might want to speak with a colleague who worked closely with them on a special project.

Checking references is a valuable aspect of the hiring process. Even a short conversation with a referee can reveal a lot of what you need to know about a candidate.

While you may want to tailor some questions for each applicant’s specific qualifications, try to include a similar range of queries to avoid bias for or against a particular candidate.

Which of these questions do you think are most important when checking references? Join the discussion below and let us know!