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October 16, 2023

Tired of Bad Hires? These Are the Best Reference Check Questions to Ask

an employee with a devil tale and a red cup of decaf coffee

Once upon a time, Anastasiia Khlopova thought she had found the perfect candidate for her open recruiter role. She decided to do what many hiring managers do and skipped the reference check to snap up the candidate ASAP.

But after onboarding, things started to feel a little… off. Anastasiia’s new hire had difficulties understanding the work process. Her communication with clients was rocky. And although she said had experience as a recruiter, her contact with candidates wasn’t great either

Anastasiia was baffled. How could someone with so much experience seem so lost?

That’s when she decided to ask for a referral from her new hire’s former supervisor. According to him, the candidate had been fired for not following through. Not only that, almost everything she said in her resume and interview process simply wasn’t true.

Now a recruiter at Jooble, Anastasiia has learned her lesson: Always, always, ALWAYS run your reference checks.

With mounting pressure to snag candidates faster, it’s tempting to cut corners to keep the process moving. But with 36% of applicants openly admitting to lying on their resumes, a detailed candidate reference check is crucial. It all starts with asking the right questions. Below are some reference check question examples that get it right.

The best reference check questions to ask

  1. When did the candidate work at your company and what was their job title?
  2. What were their main duties?
  3. Can you describe their overall performance and work ethic?
  4. Could you describe a group project they were involved in?
  5. How did the candidate handle feedback in the work environment?
  6. Can you provide examples of the candidate's accomplishments?
  7. How would you rate the candidate's written and verbal communication skills?
  8. How did the candidate handle difficult situations?
  9. Do you think the candidate could take on a more senior role?
  10. Why did the candidate leave your company?
  11. Would you rehire the candidate if given the opportunity?

Quick Caveat: Small businesses are often free to ask more reference questions than larger businesses — but just because you can ask a question, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Always check with a certified legal professional to ensure you aren’t crossing any legal or ethical lines in your candidate reference checks.

The 11 best reference check questions to ask (with sample answers)

Reference checks are crucial, but they can also feel a little rehearsed. (After all, if you're asking for a reference from the same person who referred the candidate, you can bet every question will be met with a glowing answer.)

Once you've completed your interview rounds and found your top contender, you're ready to execute your reference check. Most employers plan their reference checks before an offer is made, or once a conditional offer is extended.

The beauty of a well-planned reference check is that it provides insight into past performance, confirms a candidate’s credentials, and helps you spot red flags before it’s too late in the working relationship to make a difference. 😬

These sample reference check questions are the perfect place to start.

1. When did the candidate work at your company and what was their job title?

✅ Sample answer: The candidate worked with us from January 2019 to June 2021 as a Sales Associate.

 🔎 Reading between the lines: The candidate is telling the truth about their job title and tenure.

2. What were their main duties?

✅ Sample answer: Their primary duties included managing client accounts, conducting market research, and presenting product solutions to clients.

🔎 Reading between the lines: The candidate can juggle a variety of responsibilities, suggesting that they have the potential to handle complex and sensitive tasks.

3. Can you describe the candidate’s performance and work ethic?

✅ Sample answer: The candidate consistently met their targets and deadlines. Their job performance was as expected.

🔎 Reading between the lines: The candidate's performance and work ethic are satisfactory, but to really understand their skill set and level of dependability, you may need to ask for more details on specific projects.

4. Could you describe a group project they were involved in? What was their role and how did they collaborate with others?

✅ Sample answer: During a major client acquisition project, the candidate took a leadership role, coordinating efforts among co-workers effectively. They ensured everyone's input was considered, resulting in a successful project.

🔎 Reading between the lines: The candidate's leadership and collaborative skills show that they work well in a group and may have untapped management potential.

5. How did the candidate handle feedback in the work environment?

✅ Sample answer: The candidate was very receptive to feedback and actively sought ways to improve, transforming critiques into opportunities for professional growth.

🔎 Reading between the lines: The candidate's willingness to improve based on feedback suggests that they are coachable. Their ego will not get in the way of their professional development.

6. Can you provide examples of the candidate's accomplishments or notable contributions?

✅ Sample answer: One notable accomplishment was securing a key client account, which had a significant impact on our revenue growth.

🔎 Reading between the lines: The candidate's track record indicates a likely positive ROI on this hire.

7. How would you rate the candidate's written and verbal communication skills?

✅ Sample answer: The candidate's communication skills are exceptional. They were able to convey complex ideas clearly and persuasively, both in writing and in verbal presentations.

🔎 Reading between the lines: The candidate’s skills suggest that they are intentional and direct, making them a valuable leader, collaborator and representative of your company culture.

8. How did the candidate handle difficult situations while working at the company?

✅ Sample answer: During a challenging period when we faced a major client crisis, the candidate remained calm and collected, resolving the issue and preserving the client relationship.

🔎 Reading between the lines: The candidate's resilience in tough times speaks to their ability to problem-solve.

9. Do you think the candidate could take on a more senior role?

✅ Sample answer: Absolutely, the candidate has demonstrated leadership skills in the past and has the potential to excel in a leadership position.

🔎 Reading between the lines: The candidate can handle responsibility and could grow into a senior position, but additional training may be needed.

10. Why did the candidate leave your company?

✅ Sample answer: The candidate left the company to pursue a new opportunity in a different industry that aligned with their long-term goals.

🔎 Reading between the lines: The candidate’s job search is intentional and goal-oriented. They may be inclined to stay longer if their career path is clear and well-structured.

11. Would you rehire the candidate if given the opportunity?

✅ Sample answer: Yes. Their contributions to the team were invaluable. They would be a valuable asset to any organization.

🔎 Reading between the lines: The past company is sad to see them go. The candidate is a top performer who will likely bring the same characteristics to your company.

A two-step process to easy, automated reference check questionnaires

Even with the right questions, reference checks can take days. That’s where an automated reference check questionnaire comes in.

With Breezy, you can streamline the reference check process in two quick steps. 

Here’s how it works:

1. Request references with a few simple clicks

In Breezy, you can add a reference check to a new or existing questionnaire in your Recruiting Preferences.

All you have to do is add your question, click the ‘require reference’ checkbox, and bada bing bada boom!

Once the candidate adds in the necessary contact info, you’re good to go.

2. Auto-verify references

From here, Breezy can automatically email the references and collect their responses. 

Once your auto-verify is enabled, the candidate’s references will automatically receive an email with your reference check questionnaire attached via a linked form.

Don’t have time to create your own questionnaire? Don’t worry.

Depending on whether a candidate marked the reference as professional or personal, Breezy will send out a list of default reference check questions. These are completely customizable, so your process to automagically check references can be up-and-running with a few simple tweaks.

Email message sent to a reference with auto-verify

Reference check process FAQs

What’s the difference between a reference check and a background check?

While both reference checks and background checks can help employers learn more about candidates, they are not the same thing.

Reference checks connect human resources professionals and hiring managers to past employers or colleagues to deliver insights into a job candidate’s employment history, performance and character — everything an employer needs to make sure they’re able to succeed within a certain role.

Background checks verify a candidate's professional qualifications, criminal history, credit history, and other information. This helps ensure that a candidate’s background is compliant with legal and ethical best practices for a specific role or industry.

When should you conduct a reference check?

To avoid making a bad hiring decision, conduct your reference check regarding previous employment before extending a job offer.

What am I legally allowed to ask in a reference check?

Reference checks are designed to help you get a better read on a candidate and their skill set before finalizing your job offer. However, not all questions are created equal (or legal), and some inquiries should be saved for your EEO-1 Report.

Use your common sense and steer clear of the following topics in your reference checks:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability status
  • Health
  • Salary
  • Marital status
  • Family

Remember, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you’re not sure about a specific reference check question, always check with a legal professional first.

Should I conduct my reference check via meeting, phone call, or email?

Dealer’s choice! While conducting reference checks via email is convenient and easy to schedule, phone calls allow for deeper conversations where you can seek additional clarification where needed. Meetings also allow you to ask follow-up questions, but can be more time consuming for both parties.

Faster reference checks, better hires: Breezy makes it easy

Candidate reference checks are a part of the hiring process you should never skip. But they’re often a hassle for candidates, references and employers.

Simplify the process and make your top hires faster with Breezy’s easy, automated reference checks. You choose how many contacts to request and can even auto-verify the references by emailing all contacts with a simple set of questions to respond to. No back-and-forth scheduling. No hidden red flags.

Try it yourself with a free 14-day trial and start making better hires today.