Reference Check Questions

Use reference check questions to gather info on your candidates' past job performance from former employers and colleagues.

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Why reference checks are a must

Candidates are going to present themselves positively. Fact. 

But what you see on the surface might not be the whole story. 

Reference checks give objective info about candidates’ past performance and help you figure out who they really are. 

Reference checks rule because they help to: 

  • Back up the candidate story: Reference checks give you the full picture and help confirm (or not) resume data. Think: employment dates, jobs, job titles and responsibilities.
  • Learn about past work experiences: You can gain deeper insight from past colleagues about how candidates use their skills on the job.
  • Find out about their teamwork: Use reference checks to learn about candidates’ work relationships with managers, colleagues, direct reports and clients.
  • Spot red flags: If there’s anything suspect about their past behavior, here’s where you’ll find it out. 

Reference check questions

  • When did [candidate] work at your company and what was their job title?
  • How did you know or work with [candidate]?
  • Why did [candidate] leave your company?
  • What were their main responsibilities?
  • Could you mention one or two group projects they were involved in? What was their role and how did they collaborate with their colleagues?
  • How did [candidate] take feedback?
  • Name 2-3 of [candidate’s] strengths and weaknesses.
  • How did they handle stressful situations? Do you have an example?
  • What was their management style? How did they manage conflict between team members?
  • Did any of their behaviors impact [candidate’s] job performance? 
  • Do you think they could take on a more senior role? Why?
  • Would you rehire [candidate]?

How to ace a reference check

  • Stick to the plan: To stay objective (and fair) ask the same questions to all referees.
  • Be clear: Let candidates know when you plan to check references and tell them what you’ll need from the start.
  • Remember the role: Some skills are more important than others. Remember what your role actually needs when checking in with referees.
  • Tailor your questions: Think about the relationship the referee had with the candidate. Are they a former colleague or manager? Tailor your questions to match. 
  • Phone over email: A quick reference call will give you the chance to ask follow up questions and pick up on tone of voice. If that’s not possible, send questions via email.
  • Catch up with your candidate: If you spot any discrepancies, discuss them with the candidate. Inaccuracies could just be mistakes, so make sure you know what’s what.
  • Overcome lack of trust: Some referees might be uncomfortable sharing details. Reassure them the call is confidential and this is about getting to know the candidate better.
  • Overcome lack of objectiveness: Referees might either hold grudges or exaggerate candidates’ abilities. To reduce bias, ask for specific examples.
  • Overcome lack of time: Referees might be busy so tell them how long your call will be and stick to it. Otherwise suggest email.

What to look out for

  • Negative comments: Take negative feedback seriously and think before making a hiring decision.
  • Lack of specificity: When faced with too much good news, press for specifics. If referees can’t back up their claims with specifics, there might not be enough experience there to learn about.
  • Inconsistencies: If you discover a candidate is lying, consider it a warning sign.

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