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The Complete Guide to Reference Check Questions

Disclosure: This content is reader-supported, which means if you click on some of our links that we may earn a commission.

Screening potential candidates for open jobs is a crucial part of the hiring process. But before you make any final hiring decisions, you need to check their references. This in-depth guide will teach you everything you need to know about reference check questions for hiring managers.

Why Reference Check Questions Are So Important

When done right, reference check questions can be the difference between hiring the right employee or the wrong one. Resumes and applications alone are somewhat biased and don’t always tell the full story. Applicants typically don’t list their shortcomings on these documents.

But reference checks can do much more than just tell you whether or not someone was a good or bad employee at their former place of work. These questions can help you find standout candidates that will be a great fit for your organization.

Once you learn how to ask the right people the right questions, you’ll have a clearer picture of how your top candidates will behave in a new working environment.

Ultimately, reference check questions can lower employee turnover, reduce employee training costs, and increase employee retention rates—all of which is great news for your business.

As a hiring manager, you can use reference check questions to confidently hire top-level talent without second-guessing your decisions. 

Verifying details on an application or CV is another important aspect of reference check questions. You can quickly eliminate candidates if you learn that they lied about their skills, knowledge, responsibilities, or former employment. 

Here’s a quick story that clearly illustrates the importance of checking references: 

A dentist with his own practice hired a new dental hygienist without checking any references. After just a couple of months on the job, he had to terminate her after she injured two patients. One of the patients threatened a lawsuit against the dentist for negligent hiring. 

This situation could have easily been avoided had the dentist checked for references before hiring the hygienist and learned about her previous work from former managers.

Quick Tips to Improve Reference Check Questions Today

If you’re a new hiring manager, don’t have much experience asking reference questions, or just want to improve your hiring process, the following tips will be perfect for you. 

These tips and best practices are straightforward to apply. They involve minimal work and can make a huge difference in separating the good candidates from the bad. 

Tip #1 — Be Transparent From the Beginning

Before you start asking any questions, let your candidates know upfront that you’ll be checking references. This is a quick and easy way to weed out prospects who have something to hide. 

You’ll notice that your list of applicants might start shrinking when you mention reference checks from the start. 

If you’re using recruiting software to streamline your hiring process, the best tools will let you customize digital applications with a section for references. Many recruiting solutions already have application templates that include fields for listing references.

Workable is an excellent tool for this. The platform has 700+ templates that you can use and customize with ease. 

The platform even has a built-in solution for video interviews, which can help you see a candidate’s reaction when you ask for references. You can usually tell if they’re uncomfortable or unwilling to hand over names and phone numbers.

Tip #2 — Ask Questions to a Few Different References

Don’t just check one reference and assume you’re all set. It’s in your best interest to conduct reference checks with at least two or three different sources. This will give you a much better understanding of the candidate.

It’s also essential to make sure you’re asking questions to the right people. 

Many job applicants will list family members, former co-workers, friends, teachers, priests, or anyone else they’ve had a long-term relationship with as a reference on an application. But these types of references aren’t going to give you the information required to make a hiring decision.

Instead, be specific when you ask candidates for references. Ask them for the names and phone numbers of their last three direct managers or supervisors. 

Before reaching out to those references, run a quick Google search or LinkedIn search to verify that those people are (or were) actually in those positions. 

Workable makes it easy for you to keep track of different referral sources. You can add notes to a candidate’s profile as you’re moving them through the recruiting pipeline. The software even lets you create a specific stage in the hiring workflow for reference checks.

So everybody on the hiring team will know what stage the candidate is in. This helps ensure that an offer letter doesn’t go out prematurely.

Tip #3 — Ask Reference Check Questions Over the Phone Yourself

Hiring managers often make two huge mistakes when it comes to asking reference check questions. The first mistake is sending the questions via email, and the second mistake is delegating the task to someone else.

You need to ask reference check questions yourself. Someone in the HR department doesn’t understand your team and hiring needs the same way you do.

A reference could make a simple comment that only you would recognize as a red flag based on your team’s culture and working relationship. Your HR staff would likely miss these things and just be checking boxes off a list.

Asking reference check questions over the phone makes it easier to interpret the way things are said. Tone and other verbal cues are lost in translation over email.

Not every reference will be forthcoming about employment details or give specific reasons why the employee left. But they could make a sarcastic remark or say phrases with certain undertones that tell you everything you need to know.

For example, a sarcastic “We were sorry to see her go” or “I don’t think we’ll be seeing him again any time soon” may be interpreted the wrong way in an email. Sarcasm and any other inflection just don’t come across in text.

Phone conversations also allow you to assess pauses, laughter, sighs, and deep breaths while you’re asking questions.

Tip #4 — Ask the Right Reference Check Questions

You’d be surprised how often hiring managers make a reference check call without any preparation. This typically leads to lots of unanswered questions or missing information.

While the exact questions might vary based on the candidate, reference, or open position, you should have a list of questions prepared.

Here are some examples of the best questions to ask when checking references:

  • Was the person dependable?
  • What are their strong points and weak points?
  • What specific behaviors impacted their job performance?
  • Do they require lots of supervision, or do they work well independently?
  • Describe how they worked with team members and other employees.
  • How would you rate the quality of their work?
  • Why did they leave their position?
  • Would you rehire this person if given the opportunity? Why or why not?
  • What were their daily duties and primary responsibilities?
  • Can you provide an example of any setbacks or challenges they were faced with?
  • Did they receive any promotions when working at your company?
  • Do you think they can perform the job I’m hiring for?
  • How do they handle work-related stress?
  • Did they have any conflicts with anyone else on your staff/team? How did it get resolved?
  • Is there anyone else you recommend I speak to?
  • Would you like to add anything else?

Avoid asking closed-ended or yes-or-no questions. Give the reference a chance to elaborate as much as possible.

For example, asking how they handle work-related stress issues is better than asking, “Are they good at handling stress at work?” The latter gives the reference an opportunity to respond with just a yes or no answer.

Tip #5 — Encourage Employee Referrals

Another way to streamline the hiring process and simplify your reference check questions is by getting referrals from your existing employees. Any time you post an open job position, give your employees a chance to refer people in their network.

This is a win-win for everyone involved.

First of all, your employees will not put their own job or reputation on the line by referring a bad candidate. So you know right away that the referral is legitimate. From there, you won’t have to search too far to ask initial reference check questions—you can go straight to your employee to get the answers you need. Of course, you’ll want to also check with their previous employer, but you’ll have a much better starting point.

Workable has a built-in feature for employee referrals.

Your staff can easily share open jobs directly with an individual or their entire social network—all with a single click.

You can also set up rewards to increase participation from your employees. Workable even has a cool feature that notifies your employees about the progress of people they referred, which keeps them engaged and encourages them to refer more people in the future.

Beyond the ease of conducting reference check questions, there are lots of other great benefits of employee referrals.

The referred candidate tends to be on their best behavior since they don’t want to make their friend, family member, or colleague look bad for referring them. Hiring someone an employee referred can also boost morale, as everyone enjoys working with people they know.

Long-Term Strategies For Reference Check Questions

In addition to the quick tips mentioned above, there are a couple of long-term reference check question strategies that you can apply to your hiring process. These take a bit more time and effort and usually require a longer timeline to see the payoff.

So don’t expect to master these strategies on your first reference check call.

Strategy #1 — Learn to Spot Red Flags

Spotting red flags can really help take your reference check question routine to the next level. It’s not always about what the reference says—sometimes, you need to read between the lines.

This is a skill that comes with lots of experience. So the more calls you make, the better you’ll get at it.

For example, look at a simple reference check question like “Would you rehire this person?”

If the former manager says yes, you might automatically assume that the candidate would make a good employee. But as you start to make more calls and interview more references for different candidates, you’ll begin to see how a simple “yes” isn’t always a glowing response.

Other managers might say things like “Absolutely!” or “I would take John back in a heartbeat!” Looking for tone and phrasing is an acquired skill–one that will undoubtedly pay off to have.

You’ll also need to be on guard for fake references. Even if you’re asking candidates to provide names and phone numbers of previous supervisors, they could easily give you the wrong number. 

Many business professionals won’t answer a phone just by saying, “Hello?” They’ll typically answer with something like “Sarah speaking” or “This is Rachel with XYZ Company.” If you reach a voicemail and it doesn’t have a personalized business greeting or doesn’t match the reference’s name or position, this is another red flag.

Strategy #2 — Keep Your Notes Organized For Future Reference

It’s important to take down lots of notes when you’re asking interview questions. While you might just jot things down on a scrap piece of paper initially, make sure you clean them up and put them into a formal document that you can reference for the future.

Here’s why: Not every candidate is going to work out. Whether your company is expanding and opening new positions or you need to fill roles after someone leaves, having reference notes on hand can help you fill those positions much faster.

It’s common to have multiple qualified candidates for a single position. You went with the best option, but you’d be comfortable hiring the second or third option if the first person doesn’t work out.

You’re not going to remember every resume that passes through your email. Take notes so that you can refer back to old applicants whenever you need to fill a new position. 

It would look bad on your part if you called those same references again in six months when another role opens that the candidate is a good fit for, which is why you should keep everything on file. This is another reason why using software to manage your hiring process will make your life so much easier.

Next Steps

As previously mentioned, using recruiting tools can help you stay organized and get the most out of your reference check questions. If you’re not currently using a recruiting solution, check out our guide on the best recruiting software

After a new employee is hired, you’ll want to ensure that they experience a seamless onboarding process. The post on the top onboarding software can help you accomplish that. 

Great hiring managers also use performance management software to track how employees perform for the full employment lifecycle. These tools are really helpful beyond the initial hiring process. 


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