Ace Your Reference Checks With These Sample Questions

Male professional drawing a check in a box

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 an essential step 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 an article from 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.

To catch red flags before making a bad hire and assess fit before making an offer, always do your background checks. The process doesn’t have to be painful. Here, we’ll talk more about the usefulness of employment reference check questions in finding the perfect candidate. We’ll also give you some sample reference check questions to use in your next round of interviews.

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 are rarely good at accurately assessing themselves. Some will exaggerate their accomplishments, while others will shy away from 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 that you didn’t get to cover during the interview. If there are any major red flags that slipped through the cracks, you increase your chance of learning about them by talking to references.

Finally, thoughtful employment reference check questions can help you uncover new information that 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.

Best Practices For Reference Checks

When conducting reference checks, there are a few best practices you should follow to ensure that 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 would be if you have an established relationship with someone who has worked with your candidate in the past. Even then, you should let the candidate know you’re planning on reaching out to 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 the possibility of 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 gives you the opportunity 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 listed 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, and a good reference will be candid with you here. Still, you’ll need to do a bit of reading 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 weaknesses that are ingrained (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 do you think this employee would 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. What’s more, 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? Were 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 on it. 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, it might also be beneficial to talk with a former peer, and vice versa. Also, since checking references involves a lot of phone tag, 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 let the candidate know before contacting someone who wasn’t on their reference list.

8. Is there anything else I should know that will 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 gives the reference the opportunity 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 an assortment of candidates and deliver only the top contenders to you 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 more than 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.

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the president of 4 Corner Resources, the nationally acclaimed staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. His mission back then was the same as it is today: to do business in a personal way, while building an organization with boundless opportunities for ingenuity and advancement. When not managing 4 Corner’s growth or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his sales and business expertise though public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Hire Calling podcast.