Reference Checks: Sample Questions and Best Practices

Male recruiter wearing suit talking on cell phone conducting reference checks while working on computer in office and writing down notes in a journal.

If there is one thing candidates and hiring managers can agree on, it’s that reference checks can be a pain. They’re time-consuming, labor-intensive, and can be awkward for everyone involved. But they’re also essential in finding the right candidate and, more importantly, avoiding the wrong one.

The cost of a bad hire is probably more than you think. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the resources required to recruit, hire, and onboard a new employee can be as much as $240,000. If you make the wrong selection, not only is that money down the drain, but you’ll likely have to spend at least some of it all over again to get someone new in the role.

Always do your reference checks to catch red flags before making a bad hire and assess fit before making an offer. The process doesn’t have to be painful. Here, we’ll discuss the usefulness of employment reference check questions in finding the perfect candidate. We’ll also give you sample reference check questions for your next interview round.

Reference Checks vs. Background Checks

When sorting through applications, there are many different ways to vet potential hires, but background checks and reference checks are two important pieces of this puzzle. Understanding their differences is important, and not assuming one will provide all the necessary information. 

A background check verifies some essential information about the employee data. It typically involves a criminal check and ensures that the applicant is who they say they are. These checks might verify professional licenses and required education or verify identity, but they are common in almost any job hunt.

Reference checks will help ensure the employee is properly fit for the company. It’s more comprehensive than typical background checks. Most reference checks include conversations with an applicant’s personal and professional references, where you can ask questions about performance and get more in-depth information. It’s good to do both checks to get the most information about a candidate. 

Why Should You Check References?

During the early interview stages, you only have a candidate’s word to go on. Checking references, however, gives you objective third-party input that’s valuable in a process that can be highly subjective and emotionally charged.

Even with interview questions like ‘Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses,’ candidates rarely assess themselves accurately. Some will exaggerate their accomplishments, while others will avoid tooting their own horn. Talking with past managers and colleagues will give you a clearer assessment of what a candidate can realistically bring to your organization.

References can help fill gaps you didn’t cover during the interview. If any major red flags slip through the cracks, you increase your chance of learning about them by talking to references.

Finally, thoughtful employment reference check questions can help uncover new information you might not have asked about. For example, the candidate might have a past achievement that dovetails with a project you’re working on or may have relevant skills they didn’t think to cite on their resume.

Pros of Checking References

Get a third-party perspective on the candidate’s performance and skills

Reference checks allow you to speak with someone that knows the candidate and can give you more insight. You will find out more about the candidate they forgot to share or left out of the conversation and be able to ask questions about specific topics you want to learn more about. 

Help assess whether a candidate fits into the company culture

Learn more about candidates’ ability to adapt and how they might fit into your current company culture and structure. References have different perspectives and can share past experiences with them and how they work with different people. 

Learn and ask more about candidates’ strengths and weaknesses

There will be some things that a candidate omits from their interview. By talking to references and asking a few more questions, you might discover some strengths and weaknesses you didn’t know about. You can also validate conversations you had with the candidate and ask for examples of certain qualifications you are looking for.

Discover any red flags missed during interviews and screening

Talking to references may help uncover red flags that didn’t come up during the interview or screening process. Candidates may have an attendance issue or something their previous employer could share with you that they would not have brought up on their own during the interviews. It’s a limited amount of time, and there are just situations and things that won’t make the cut you could find out about when speaking to the references. 

Cons of Checking References

References may be biased

Candidates provide the list of references to the hiring manager, so you will likely not get the information for anyone who would say anything negative. Typically, candidates will list people they had a pleasant experience with or believe will have the most positive feedback to report. 

The process is time-consuming

Contacting references can be extremely time-consuming. It’s hard to get a hold of people sometimes, and you might play some phone tag or take a while to connect with the references. If you are in a rush to get someone hired, it’s important to be realistic about timelines and not skip over these important steps.

Some companies or references may not disclose certain information

Not all companies allow their employees to provide references for previous employees. It’s possible that the most they can do are verify employment for a certain time period. Candidates should know that information when asking permission to include references on their application, but you might run into dead ends when reaching out.

Best Practices for Reference Checks

When conducting reference checks, you should follow a few best practices to ensure the process is fair and transparent for the candidate and the contacts you’re speaking with.

Always ask before checking references

Candidates should go into the interview process prepared for you to contact their references, but it’s still common courtesy to let them know when you plan on reaching out to the colleagues they’ve provided.

Don’t go through backchannels

While it may be tempting to use your LinkedIn prowess to track down a candidate’s past colleagues (and many do this), it’s bad business to reach out to anyone without your candidate’s express consent. The exception will be if you have an established relationship with someone who has previously worked with your candidate. Even then, you should let the candidate know you plan to contact your shared contact for input.

Give references proper context

When you make contact with a reference, begin by sharing some background about your company and the role the candidate is in the running for. This will give them the necessary context to answer your questions thoroughly and accurately.

Ask open-ended questions

The best questions to ask references are open-ended ones. Phrasing questions like “Tell me about X” or “Describe X” will yield more helpful responses than those with a simple yes/no answer.

Avoid questions that could prompt discrimination

Aside from possibly triggering unintentional bias, asking questions about age, ethnicity, marital status, and sexuality could result in a lawsuit. Click here for the best and worst interview questions to ask candidates.

Sample Reference Check Questions

Once you’ve got a reference on the phone (finally!), it’s time to get down to business. Here are eight great questions to ask references.

1. What can you tell me about working with/managing [candidate]?

This gives the reference a chance to ease into things and allows you to learn the nature of their working relationship with your candidate, which provides context for their answers. Did they manage your candidate? Were they peers? This is also a good time to verify the information on the candidate’s resume, like the dates of their employment and any promotions during that time.

2. Tell me about [candidate’s] strengths.

This is an obvious question to learn where the candidate excels, but it will also help you gauge whether you got an accurate read during your interview. Cross-referencing the reference’s answers with those the candidate gave can help you assess the candidate’s self-awareness (or lack thereof).

3. In which areas did [candidate] need more development when you worked together?

This is a nice way of asking about the candidate’s weaknesses; a good reference will be candid with you here. Still, you’ll need to read between the lines to glean where there might be more to the story than what’s explicitly said.

As you listen to the reference’s answer, aim to differentiate between weaknesses that can be addressed on the job (i.e., weak presentation skills you can strengthen through practice and coaching) and ingrained weaknesses (a bad temper, chronic lateness, etc.).

If anything in their answer gives you pause, ask follow-up questions for more clarity. Remember, one negative review shouldn’t take a candidate out of the running. Rather, it’s just a piece of information in the full data set you’ll use to make your hiring decision.

4. What type of workplace would this employee thrive in?

Sometimes a great candidate winds up in a position or workplace that’s just a bad fit, so this answer can be illuminating. Moreover, if your candidate looks great on paper, but the reference’s answer sounds completely different from your organization, it might be time for serious second thoughts.

5. Was [candidate] promoted while working with you? Why or why not?

If the candidate worked for this organization for a considerable amount of time, it’s great to see advancement in their job title or duties. If you don’t, though, it’s important to understand why.

Were they considered for promotions but passed up? Or are there few opportunities for advancement? Were they happy in their current role? While a drive to climb the ranks may or may not be important in the position you’re looking to fill, these answers will give you helpful insight into the candidate’s prospects for a future with your organization.

6. I wanted to check in with you about X.

Use this opportunity to cross-check information the candidate shared during his or her interview, both good and bad. If they cited a major accomplishment, get their reference’s take. If one of their answers seemed murky, look for further details.

You can also double-check the basics, like why the candidate left the company. Some employers may have a policy not to share this information, but it’s worthwhile to ask.

7. Is there anyone else that would be good for me to speak with?

If you’re speaking with a candidate’s former manager, talking with a former peer might also be beneficial, and vice versa. Also, since checking references involves a lot of phone tags, it’s always useful to have a backup in case you can’t nail down another of the provided references. Of course, be sure to inform the candidate before contacting someone who wasn’t on their reference list.

8. Is there anything else I should know to help me make the right decision?

It’s just like they say at weddings: speak now or forever hold your peace.

Wrapping up with this question allows the reference to bring up any topics you may not have already discussed. In fact, this is one of our favorite questions because even if you’ve covered a lot of ground, almost everyone will rattle off a bit more information when you ask it. Because it’s so open-ended, the responses are often the most candid of the whole interview and some of the most helpful in making a decision.

This question also opens the door for the reference to disclose any misgivings they might have been holding back about hiring the candidate.

Let 4 Corner Resources Handle the Vetting Process

Let us do the heavy lifting in your hiring process. When you work with the staffing professionals at 4 Corner Resources, our headhunters will screen and vet various candidates and deliver only the top contenders for consideration, freeing up your time to focus on growing your business.

We’re dedicated to combining industry-leading staffing solutions with unmatched personal service, and we’re with you for the long haul. Our staffing professionals have over a decade of experience sourcing and matching the best talent with roles at companies like yours. Have questions about working with a recruiting firm? Wondering if a professional staffing company is right for you?

Contact us today, and let’s talk.


What information should I ask about in reference checks?

Hiring managers should gather as much information as possible about candidates during a reference check. To keep it consistent, put together a list of questions to use with each candidate’s reference. 

When is the best time to perform reference checks?

Once you’ve completed the interviews, you should perform reference checks for your top candidates to gather additional information about the top candidates.

What are the best practices for reference checks?

Ask before checking references and provide some context to the person you are speaking to. Open-ended questions are best to get the most information and learn more about the candidates.

Should all of the references provided for a reference check be contacted?

Candidates might provide more references than you need, so reach out to the ones that are the most relevant to what you’re looking for. Use the remainder of the contacts as a backup if you have difficulty reaching someone on the list.

Looking to enhance your staffing strategy?

Download our 2023 Hiring and salary guide for access to exclusive staffing insights.

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the President of 4 Corner Resources, the staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. 4 Corner is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance, and the top-rated staffing company in Central Florida. Recent awards and recognition include being named to Forbes’ Best Recruiting Firms in America, The Seminole 100, and The Golden 100. Pete also founded zengig, to offer comprehensive career advice, tools, and resources for students and professionals. He hosts two podcasts, Hire Calling and Finding Career Zen, and is blazing new trails in recruitment marketing with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn