The 10 Best Questions To Ask When Checking References

The best questions to ask when checking references

A hasty hiring decision can be costly. Take the time to do your due diligence to ensure you hire the right person for the job. Any good hiring manager will tell you that rushing to make a hire will only get you into trouble.

In addition to social media checks, background checks, and standard job interviews, you should always call a job candidate’s references. The reference check is your main opportunity to learn about a candidate from someone who has had experience working with them.

Not only do reference checks allow you to verify the facts about the candidate from their resume, but they also provide the opportunity to learn about a job candidate through the eyes of another professional. This can be a make-or-break moment for the job candidate.

It’s your responsibility to ask a job candidate for a list of professional references. Remember that references listed by a job candidate are who they want you to contact. But if you know someone else to call, please contact them instead. It’s usually easier to trust someone you know than to take the word of someone you’ve never met.

During the 1970s, changes in American legislation allowed companies to face legal consequences for negligence in their hiring procedures. For instance, if an employer recruited an individual with a criminal record who subsequently committed a workplace crime, the employer could be held responsible if they had not conducted a police check before hiring. This legal risk led to a significant increase in the practice of employee background checks, and this trend has persisted over the years, becoming commonplace.

Picking the best candidate for your organization requires precision and research. A fast hiring decision may seem appealing (and it’s essential for hiring managers to be efficient), but the consequences of a rushed decision are often costly.

One survey found only 28% of people admit to lying on their resume or in a job interview.
That can spell potential trouble for employers.

Our advice? Even if you think a candidate is the perfect fit – just pick up the phone and make a call. Give the reference a bit of background about why you are calling. Tell them who you are, what company you work for, and any other pertinent info. Then, it’s time to dive into the questions.

Feel free to ask any questions related to the job, but remember that any questions about protected classes (race, age, sex, etc.) that are illegal to ask in an interview are also off-limits during a reference check.

Why conduct a reference check?

So, why bother with a reference check when you already have a detailed resume and interview responses? The answer lies in the depth of understanding a reference check can provide.

A reference check process is not just about confirming employment dates or job titles; it’s about getting a glimpse of the candidate through the eyes of those who have worked alongside them. References, often former colleagues or supervisors, can offer valuable perspectives on how the candidate collaborates with others, handles challenges, and contributes to a team’s success.

  • Example: A former supervisor might share with you an instance where the candidate successfully resolved a complex issue that significantly benefited the team and the company.
    This insight demonstrates the candidate’s problem-solving potential. Based on this information, you can assess if the candidate is a good fit for the position you’re hiring for.
  • Example: A reference might highlight that the candidate often waited for instructions rather than proactively seeking opportunities to contribute to their assigned projects.
    This suggests a potential lack of initiative and may indicate a need for a more structured work environment for the candidate. Roles that require self-motivation and proactive problem-solving may be challenging for this person. Based on this information, you can assess if the candidate is a good job and culture fit for the company.

This type of information can be essential, providing a more detailed knowledge of the applicant beyond what’s presented on paper.

How to ask a candidate for references?

Asking candidates for references can be sensitive, especially if they are employed. When asking for references, transparency is key.

First, set the expectation. Inform candidates upfront that you will be checking references, and ask them to provide contacts for you to reach out to.

Secondly, when requesting references, be specific about the information you seek. Clearly articulate the aspects of the candidate’s work or character you would like the references to address.

Setting clear expectations, requesting precise information, preserving confidentiality, and keeping open communication all contribute to a great candidate experience and lay the groundwork for a successful and informed hiring choice.

What not to ask

While the reference check process focuses on asking the right questions, it’s equally important to be aware of what not to ask during a reference check.

One simple rule is never to ask questions the EEOC prohibits. In the USA, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a job applicant because of their race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.

Why? Because none of these protected categories relate to a candidate’s ability to do the job or perform the required tasks. The best rule is to ask questions directly related to job performance—assessing the candidate’s ability to do the job to make the best hiring decision possible is the goal.

Here’s our list of the ten best questions to ask when checking references

Now, let’s dive into the heart of an effective reference check – the questions. To comply with all legal regulations, keep all your reference questions directly related to the job. Here’s a list of questions to ask references to help uncover valuable insights:

  1. Can you verify the candidate’s employment, job title, pay, and responsibilities? Why did they leave that job?
  2. How do you know the job candidate?
  3. What makes the candidate a good fit for this job?
  4. If you had the opportunity, would you re-hire this job candidate? Why?
  5. What are the candidate’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
  6. Did the candidate get along with their co-workers and management?
  7. Tell me what working with the job candidate is like.
  8. What advice can you give me on managing the job candidate successfully?
  9. What else do I need to know about the job candidate I didn’t already ask?
  10. Who else should I speak to about the candidate who can provide different insight? During the phone call, listen carefully for any red flags. Take note of who you called, when you called them, and what was discussed. In the HR world, it’s always smart to document everything. The reference check will help you to paint a complete picture of the job candidate. Use this info to hire the best candidate for the job.

Beware of fake job references

A survey conducted of 1,700 job seekers indicated that one in six respondents had faked references. Detecting bad references requires thorough research during the employment process. There is no quick method to spot them. Still, you could look for information inconsistencies, such as gaps in employment history or contradictory details between the resume and what the reference gives.

You should also pay attention to the tone and nature of the reference’s answers, as hesitancy or unclear responses may indicate underlying concerns.

Additionally, verify the reference’s credibility by cross-referencing contact information with official company channels.

Thoroughly assessing these different aspects can help uncover potential red flags and ensure a more informed hiring decision.

Additional tips for checking references:

  • Don’t delegate the reference check to someone else; take ownership to gather firsthand insights.
  • Make detailed notes during the reference check, documenting key points and any potential red flags.
  • Conduct the reference check by phone, allowing for a more personal and detailed conversation.
  • Start with easy questions to establish rapport before delving into more in-depth inquiries.
  • Verify employment dates to ensure consistency with the candidate’s provided information.
  • Avoid close-ended questions; encourage open-ended responses that provide a fuller picture.
  • Be on guard for potential fake references; cross-reference information to ensure authenticity.

A well-executed reference check is more than just a phase in the hiring process; it’s a strategic move that helps provide the complete picture of a job candidate.
With this comprehensive guide, you are equipped with questions and a systematic approach to reference checks, ensuring that your hiring selections are based on a thorough understanding of your potential team members.

What do you do after you hire someone?

WorkBright can work with several applicant tracking systems to easily import new employee data and ease the pain of onboarding in a few quick clicks. Find out more about our employee onboarding solutions, or to check it out for yourself, see a demo here.