The Questions You Should Be Asking References


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  • A reference check is the process of an employer contacting a job candidate’s professional and personal connections to better understand the candidate’s skills, qualifications and demeanor.
  • Your reference check questions should discern whether a candidate would fit in at your company. They cannot pertain to your candidate’s personal information.
  • Your company should develop a process to ensure consistency among all reference checks and determine which questions you should ask references.
  • This article is for business owners who plan to conduct reference checks for prospective employees and want to know how to prepare and what to ask.

A candidate for a job at your company who aces an interview doesn’t always make a perfect hire. You can get a better idea of an applicant’s compatibility with your company by checking their references – especially if you ask the right questions, with a focus on the candidate’s performance and what it was like to manage and work alongside them.

A reference check is the process of an employer reaching out to people who can shed light on a job candidate’s strengths and speak to the qualifications listed on the candidate’s resume. These contacts tend to be previous employers, but they may also include university professors, longtime colleagues and other people familiar with the applicant’s work.

As an employer, you may find that reference checks help paint a full picture of a potential hire. If you ask your applicant’s professional references the right questions, you’ll learn more about the candidate’s skills than you can from a traditional job interview alone.

These are some ways to see if your potential hire is right for the job when you check their references:

  • Confirm the written or verbal information the potential employee has provided.
  • Learn about the candidate’s skills and strengths from someone other than the candidate.
  • Gather information about the applicant’s job performance in past roles to predict their success at your company.

With all this information in hand, you should have an easier time choosing which candidates to move forward in the hiring process.

Key takeaway: A reference check is a series of questions an employer asks a job candidate’s personal and/or professional references to better understand the applicant’s qualifications and verify information from the potential hire’s interview and resume.

When developing your list of reference check questions, you should determine the types of information you’re looking to confirm about the job candidate. You may be interested in the references’ insights about the candidate on these topics:

  • Job performance
  • Ability to understand and follow directions
  • Ability to work well as part of a team
  • Standards for office behavior and ethics
  • Interests, specialties and demeanor
  • Ability to give directions and ensure that subordinates follow them (if they’re applying for a leadership role)
  • Anything else that stands out on the candidate’s resume or emerged during their job interview

Some of these topics are more appropriate to discuss with professional references, whereas others may be more suitable to ask personal references. For example, a former supervisor can speak to how well the candidate operates as part of a team, while a close friend is able to describe the candidate’s interests, specialties and demeanor.

There are certain questions you cannot ask a reference. In general, you can’t ask questions that aren’t related to the job itself. Asking these types of questions in your hiring process can subject your company to discrimination claims:

  • Anything related to demographics or personal information. Don’t ask about a candidate’s sexuality, age, religion or similar matters.
  • Anything related to personal health. Don’t ask about a candidate’s medical history or the existence of disabilities. You can ask whether the candidate is capable of performing the tasks that the job requires.
  • Anything related to credit scores. Although you can request a credit score from a job applicant, the Fair Credit Reporting Act bars you from asking references about an applicant’s credit score.
  • Anything related to family. Don’t ask whether a candidate has (or plans to have) children or a spouse. If you worry that a job applicant with a family might not have enough time for the job, ask references if they think the time demands of the job will suit the candidate. [Read related article: Illegal Job Interview Questions to Avoid]

Key takeaway: You should ask references questions pertaining to the job and the candidate’s qualifications. Avoid questions about the candidate’s personal information, health, family or credit score.

Now that you know what information to request from a reference, you should be ready to develop your list of reference check questions. Below are 32 common reference check questions that you can use. You may feel at first that some of these don’t apply to your company, but you should speak with your hiring manager before eliminating any questions.

  • Is there any information you and/or your company are unwilling or unable to give me about the candidate?
  • If you can’t share any information with me, can you connect me with any former employees who worked closely with the candidate?
  • Can you confirm the candidate’s employment start and end dates, salary, and job title?
  • What is your relationship to the candidate, and how did you two first meet?

  • For how long have you worked at your company?
  • For how long have you had your current job title?
  • For how long did you work with the candidate, and in what capacities?
  • Can you think of any reasons I should be speaking with another reference instead of yourself?

  • What positions did the candidate have while at your company?
  • In what roles did the candidate start and end?
  • What did these roles entail?
  • What were the most challenging parts of the candidate’s roles at your company?
  • How did the candidate face these challenges and other obstacles?
  • What are the candidate’s professional strengths, and how did they benefit your company?
  • In what areas does the candidate need improvement?
  • Do you think the candidate is qualified for this job, and why or why not?

  • For how long did you directly or indirectly manage the candidate?
  • In what ways was managing the candidate easy, and in what ways was it challenging?
  • How did the candidate grow during their time working under you?
  • What suggestions do you have for managing this candidate?

  • For how long did the candidate manage you, and in what capacity?
  • What did you like most and least about the candidate’s management style?
  • How did the candidate’s management style help you grow and learn?
  • How could the candidate have better managed you and your co-workers?

  • For how long were you among the candidate’s colleagues, and in what capacity?
  • What did you like most and least about working with the candidate?
  • How did you grow and learn while working with the candidate?
  • How did the candidate support you and your other colleagues?
  • In what ways could the candidate have been a better co-worker to you and your colleagues?

  • Why did the candidate leave your company?
  • Did this candidate’s behavior lead to any workplace conflicts or instances of questionable ethics?
  • If the opportunity arose, would you willing and/or able to rehire the candidate, and why or why not?

Just as you can speak with your hiring manager about potentially removing certain questions from this list, you can discuss adding other questions. As long as any additional questions shed light on how your candidate would perform during employment with your company and don’t ask for personal information, chances are that you’re asking good questions.

Key takeaway: The questions you ask references should shed light on the candidate-reference relationship as well as the candidate’s skills and ability to act as a team player.

If you decide to check references for new hires, implement a formal procedure for it at your company. This will streamline the process of obtaining your candidates’ references and the permission to contact them and help you determine what to ask the references. From start to finish, your hiring team should follow these steps to conduct a thorough reference check:

  1. Decide how many references to obtain from each applicant. Two or three should suffice.
  2. Include a section for references in every job application. Ask candidates to include their references’ full names, phone numbers, email addresses and relationship to the candidate.
  3. Get permission to contact the reference. Include a clause in your job application that the applicant signs to give you permission to contact their references. You should also email a reference to get their permission to ask them questions about the candidate.
  4. Decide whether you’ll conduct your reference checks by phone or email. While sending questions by email will save your company time – especially if you have a standard list of questions you send to all references – verbal checks via phone, video chat or even in-person meetings can offer you a clearer understanding of a candidate.
  5. Develop a list of reference check questions. Consider the list above to determine potential questions.
  6. Watch out for red flags. According to one survey, as many as 30% of job applicants include fake references on their resumes. Do your research before contacting a reference.
  7. Establish a standard note-taking process. Don’t expect to remember every single thing you discussed during a reference check. Work with your hiring team to develop a note-taking format and process that the whole team can understand and use for all hiring processes.

Key takeaway: To conduct a reference check, develop a universal standard outlining the number of references a job applicant must provide, the procedure for contacting references and the questions you should ask.

Once you’ve conducted reference checks on all your job candidates, you should have all the information you need to decide which one is best for the job, and reach out with a formal job offer. If the candidate accepts, then congratulate them and yourself – and start preparing for your new employee’s first day on the job.

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