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Are You Checking References? (15 Critical Questions to Ask)

Are You Checking References? 15 Critical Questions to Ask References

Do you check references before making a hiring decision on a candidate?

If the answer to this question is “no”, then you need to stop what you’re doing and read this post.

Even when you find an applicant with a shining resume who gives a perfect interview, it is critical follow up with references!

References can provide valuable insight into a candidate’s work style, attitude, successes, and failures in the past. Checking in with a reference is a crucial part in vetting a candidate for employment.

But do you know what questions to ask references?

Don’t worry. We have you covered.

In this post, we go over the specific questions you should be asking a reference and explain why each of them is crucial to helping you make the right decision.

Getting Started

In addition to asking simple questions, you want to cross-check the information on the candidate’s resume with the reference.

For example, if the reference is a former employee, does he/she recognize the description of the candidate’s job on the resume.  This is a good chance to make sure information on the candidate’s resume is accurate and honest.

Make sure the title reported on the resume matches what the reference recalls. Also, make sure the description of the candidate’s duties is a match. It’s not uncommon for people to embellish their resumes; watch out for this.

Sample Reference Questions

Below is a list of sample reference check questions to ask a reference. When asking these questions and evaluating the responses, pay attention to not only what the reference is saying but also the tone of their delivery. Are they hesistant? Are they excited to refer the candidate? Most business references will be really excited to recommend someone who was an amazing employee in the past.

A reference check generally consists of three different types of questions:  introductory, skill assessment and finally, fit. Below we dive into sample questions from each of these categories.

It’s not necessary to ask all these questions, but you should use a couple from each category to make sure you have a full picture of the candidate’s history with their reference.

Introductory Questions

1. What is your relationship to the candidate?

Why ask this question?

This is a simple question, but you need to know who you are talking to and what relationship they have with your potential hire. The conversation you are likely to have with a former manager of the candidate versus a former colleague is going to be different. Furthermore, usually a candidate reports the relationship on their resume. This is an opportunity for you to make sure everyone is on the same page and that the relationship has been reported correctly.

2. How long have you worked with the candidate?

Why ask this question?

This helps you understand how well the reference knows the candidate. Someone that was a direct manager of a candidate for 5 years probably has a lot of insight into what it’s like to work with the potential hire. Their opinion is likely to carry more weight than someone that only worked with the candidate for a few months.

3. What were some of the candidate’s responsibilities?

Why ask this question?

This question will help you compare what the candidate has told you about their responsibilities and what their reference thinks their responsibilities were.

Skill Assessment Questions

1. What are some of the candidate’s strengths?

Why ask this question?

This is an opportunity for you to compare your perceived strengths from your interviews with the candidate what their reference believes to be their strengths. Try to get the reference to explain situations where they observed these strengths in action so you can have a better picture for the candidate’s skills.

2. What are some of the candidate’s weaknesses?

Why ask this question?

Everyone has weaknesses; some are more damning than others. Make sure you know what weaknesses to expect from your hire and are they things you are comfortable with.

3. If the candidate has weaknesses, do you believe the candidate can overcome with within the first 90 days and with training?

Why ask this question?

This is a good follow up if the weaknesses discussed are skill-specific versus something behavioral. It’s also an opportunity for you to dive into how trainable the candidate is and what experience their reference has had with training the candidate.

4. Did the candidate receive any promotions while with your company? Why or why not?

Why ask this question?

This helps establish context for their employment. If they were passed over for promotion, why was that? Does it matter for the position you are hiring for? If they were promoted, then that’s a great thing to learn to help inform your hiring decision. 

5. Does the candidate have good listening and communication skills?

Why ask this question?

Make sure you dive into specifics with this question. Anyone can give you a quick “yes”, but try to ask follow ups where the reference gives you examples of the candidate successfully applying these skills.

6. Did the candidate mainly work independently or with a group of people?

Why ask this question?

If they primarily worked independently, then you should follow up with questions focused on how well good they are with being self-directed. Do they need a lot of managing and direction?

If they worked in a group, make sure you ask about how they performed while working with others. Did they take the lead? What was their role in the group?

7. Was the candidate a valuable member of your company?

Why ask this question?

Again, do not accept a simple “yes” to this question. Instead, dive deeper and find out why they were valuable. Pay attention to the reference’s tone.

8. Why did the candidate leave the position?

Why ask this question?

If the candidate was a great employee, why did they leave? Was it on good terms? Make sure it is in line with whatever reason the candidate gave you during the interview.

Assessing Fit for your Position

1. Do you think the candidate is qualified for this job? Why or why not?

Why ask this question?

This is an opportunity for you to get a third party’s perspective on the candidate’s potential skill match for the position you are hiring.

Make sure to probe further into the reference’s response. What specific qualities cause you to feel this way? Do not just accept a simple affirmation.

2. How would you rate the candidate’s overall performance from a scale of 1 to 10?

Why ask this question?

With this question, anything under a 9 should raise some concern.

Most managers are not going to give someone a really low score, but they will give someone a 7 or 8. However, if the candidate was a great employee, then there should be no hesistation with throwing out a 9 or 10 during a reference call.

3. Why should I hire this candidate?

Why ask this question?

A good reference that really believes in the qualities of the candidate is going to want to sell you on hiring this person. This is their opportunity to do so. If the reference is lukewarm about the candidate but doesn’t want to flat out say they weren’t a great employee, then their sales job is going to be weak.

4. All things aside, would you rehire this candidate if you could?

Why ask this question?

The final question. This is an important one and you should weigh the reference’s response with everything else they have told you. This ultimately will help you answer the most critical question of all, should you hire this candidate?

There you have it. You are now ready for check references like a champ :-).

Taking the time to actually follow up on business references is a great way to get another person’s perspective on a candidate. I’ve often thought that checking references isn’t worth it because no one is going to put a bad reference on their resume, but you’d be surprised what you can learn and what references candidtates will actually include.

It’s important during a reference check that you probe beyond simple affirmative answers and try to get the reference to give concrete examples from their experience working with the candidate.

This will help you understand the context of their relationship, assess how much of a champion this reference really is for the candidate and also evaluate the candidate’s judgement when it came time for them to gather references.

Do you have your own go-to reference check questions for a reference call not covered here? Let us know in the comments. This is a living document, so we’d love to include you questions as well.

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Sean Falconer

Sean Falconer is Founder and CTO of Proven. He is a proud Canadian and reformed academic. He is passionate about making hiring for small business simple, streamlined and frictionless.

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