This article is part of a larger series on Hiring.
Conducting a reference check is a vital part of your hiring process as it helps verify information a candidate has given you and provides additional details about the candidate’s work performance and abilities. You’ll generally want to speak to professional references, but on occasion you might speak with a personal reference. Either way, you will often have limited time with a reference, so you want every question to count.
Let’s dive into some of the best reference check questions to ask, along with some tips for getting the most out of your time with each reference. Download our sample lists of reference check questions to get started.
Basic Reference Check Questions
Start your reference check conversation with a friendly greeting, thank the reference for their time, and tell them anything they say will be kept confidential. You’ll generally start with a “housekeeping” question to get the basic details.
1. What was your job title, the candidate’s job title, and how long did you directly supervise the candidate?
This is a great way to verify the reference was a direct supervisor of your chosen candidate. It also helps you determine how much weight to give this reference’s answers. If the reference only supervised your chosen candidate for a few months, they may not provide as full a picture as you’d like. You should keep speaking with them but also understand the limitations of their answers. If you happen to be talking to a personal reference, use your first question to establish the reference’s relationship to the candidate.
As part of a strong hiring process, we recommend asking your final two or three candidates for three references each and speaking to at least two of them, ideally from a candidate’s most recent jobs.
Work Ethic & Experience Questions
This is the meat of the employer reference discussion—where you gather specific information about the candidate’s abilities and what it’s like to manage them. Pay close attention to the answers provided and ask follow-up questions frequently.
2. What kind of work did the candidate do for you?
This will give you an idea of the candidate’s daily duties. Ensure these line up with the duties you need them to do for your organization. Here’s a great opportunity to ask detailed follow-up questions to probe a little deeper into the candidate’s abilities, specific projects the candidate handled, or how much training the supervisor had to provide. If you’re speaking with a personal reference, you’ll cover the candidate’s job by asking a question about what the reference knows about their success at work.
3. How did the candidate handle difficult or complex projects?
Asking this question helps you understand the candidate’s ability to work well under pressure. Be sure to ask follow-up questions and dig deep into specific examples. If the job you’re hiring for requires quick thinking and action, spend time here asking for more details and examples. For a personal reference, ask how the candidate handles stress or conflict in their personal life.
4. Can you give me an example of a setback the candidate faced and how they dealt with it?
Especially in challenging situations, workers may become overwhelmed and face setbacks. No one is perfect and understanding how someone handles tough situations can prepare you to effectively manage someone. It also gives you insight into the candidate’s ability to pivot and overcome obstacles.
5. What are the candidate’s greatest strengths?
This is a common question—one any reference should be able to answer with confidence. If there’s any hesitation by the reference, that’s a red flag. Ask follow-up questions to ensure you get the full picture of the candidate’s strengths and how they relate to the job you need them to do. This question, combined with the next one, is great for personal references as well.
6. What are their most significant weaknesses?
A common question to follow the one above, this lets you know where you might need to provide support or guidance to the candidate if you hire them. As their manager, you need to know what will make this candidate successful in your company. Many references give responses like the candidate “works too hard” or “cares too much.” If you get those superficial responses, dig deeper.
7. Given the requirements of this job, what training or education would the candidate need in the first few weeks?
If the answers given here aren’t job- or task-focused (like the candidate needs to work on handling anger or stress or managing their work schedule), that may present huge red flags. However, if the responses are more focused on aspects of the job (like the candidate may need more training on your company’s proprietary systems or software), that’s different and generally easy to overcome. Knowing this information can even help you prepare a modified onboarding plan for the new hire.
8. What do I need to know to effectively manage this candidate?
This is an extremely important question to ask references as it gives you insight into how to manage the new hire. Every employee may need slightly different management. Some need a more hands-on approach, while others need more independence and hands-off management. Knowing what this candidate needs allows you to set the right tone from day one.
9. Why did the candidate leave your company?
Some references balk at this question or provide vague information. What you’re ultimately looking for here is verification of what the candidate told you about why they left the company. Ask follow-up questions about whether they left on good terms and how much notice they gave. This is good information to have so you know what to expect if the candidate ever decides to leave your company.
10. Would you rehire the candidate?
Any response other than an immediate yes is a red flag. If there’s hesitation, ask why. If there’s a caveat, ask why. If the reference hesitates on rehiring this candidate, maybe you should hesitate on hiring them. For a personal reference, end your questions with this one: Is there anything else you want to share about this candidate? This gives the personal reference the option to elaborate and provide you with additional information.
Character Trait Questions
Understanding a candidate’s character is vital. You need to be sure they fit with your company culture and can work well with their colleagues.
11. Does the candidate work better alone or with a team?
Some people are simply better workers on an island. If the reference notes that the candidate didn’t work well with others or regularly faced interpersonal battles, take note. If the job you’re hiring them for doesn’t require working with others, this may be acceptable. But if you need them to work as part of a team, this could be a deal breaker.
12. Was the candidate a good communicator and listener?
Especially if the candidate will work closely with others, or manage workers, they’ll need to have these soft skills. If the reference can’t provide concrete examples to show the candidate’s good communication and listening skills, take note and possibly reevaluate the candidate.
Check out our applicant screening guide for more strategies on how to filter job candidates.
Reference Check Question Tips
Compliance Note: Reference checks differ from background checks. A background check will provide you with detailed information about criminal or financial matters relating to a new hire. Stay away from those types of questions during a reference check, as some of them could even be illegal. Some of our recommended background check providers, however, do also offer reference check features.
Doing reference checks requires asking the right reference check questions. While you should have a standard list of questions to ask when checking references, you’ll want to actively listen to the responses so you can ask follow-up questions and get as much useful information as possible. Done well, your reference checks can give you a great head start on managing your new employee.