11 Questions To Ask Personal References

Updated March 10, 2023

Before hiring a candidate, you should learn more about what they're like to work with by contacting their personal references. These can be friends, colleagues or professors who have spent time with the candidate. You can ask them questions involving the candidate's work ethic, collaboration skills and strengths or weaknesses. In this article, we explore what personal references are, why it's important to contact them and questions you can ask them.

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What is a personal reference?

A personal reference is an individual close to the candidate who can speak on their skills, personality, work ethic and characteristics. When you're impressed with a candidate's resume or interview, you can contact their personal references to learn they're firsthand opinion of what the candidate is like to work with, their teamwork skills and their ability to handle the role's responsibilities. Personal references can be a candidate's former instructor, colleague, friend, academic advisor or coach.

Related: How to Write a Character Reference for a Friend (With Examples)

Why is contacting personal references important?

It's important to contact a candidate's personal references because they have firsthand experience of spending time with the candidate. They can share personal stories to help you gain a better understanding of their character and personality traits. Professional references, which typically include coworkers and supervisors, can tell you what the employee is like in the workplace, while a personal reference can detail how they act outside of the office.

Personal references can also share with you any potential weaknesses the candidate has that you may not already know about, since their application materials typically don't include this information. Talking with their friends or colleagues gives you a strong idea of the employee's personality traits and overall character. You'll also learn how well they interact with others on a team to gain insight into whether they make a good fit for your team and the role.

Related: How to Ask for a Character Reference

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Questions to ask a personal reference

Asking quality questions to a candidate's personal references can help you verify the information listed on their resume and clarify certain claims. Some questions to ask a personal references include:

1. Please describe your relationship to the candidate

You should first learn how the reference knows the candidate to identify the kind of perspective they're offering. This can help you determine which followup questions to ask. For instance, employees who played on the same sports team as the candidate may have strong insight into their collaboration and teamwork skills, while a former volunteer manager can detail the candidate's work ethic and passion.

Related: How To Ask Someone to Be Your Reference (Plus Email Examples)

2. What are the candidate's strengths and weaknesses?

A candidate's references typically develop a different view that the candidate typically isn't capable of grasping on their own. This is why it's important to learn what the candidate believes their strengths and weaknesses to be while also asking their references the same questions. You can evaluate how these answers differ.

References may detail how certain weaknesses impact the candidate's overall job performance. Some references also mention a candidate's weaknesses, while also describing what the candidate did to improve themselves and strengthen their performance.

3. Does the candidate work well with others?

Understanding how the candidate interacts with their friends or colleagues indicates how well they may collaborate with others in their new position. This answer also tells you how well they may handle and resolve conflicts with other employees.

4. Can you describe a time when you watched the candidate face a challenging or stressful situation? How did they handle it?

Almost every position involves stressful situations or challenging problems that employees must resolve. Ask the reference about certain instances when candidates faced a tough problem, like tight deadlines or challenging projects. They may provide you with details about the candidate's strategy for overcoming the challenge and reacting positively, professionally and maturely to difficult situations.

5. Would you describe the candidate as dependable?

Since the reference may spend close time with the candidate, they should have firsthand knowledge of their reliability. They can share reasons why the candidate is dependable with personal stories and examples of times when the employee delivered what they promised.

6. What are some accomplishments you've noticed the candidate reach?

If they're a motivated and driven candidate, the reference should be able to easily recall instances where they completed a task that benefited the candidate, an individual friend, their team or a group of friends. Meeting impressive accomplishments usually means a candidate goes above their regular responsibilities to reach impressive achievements for others.

7. Would you hire this candidate?

This is an important question as it typically asks the reference for their honest opinion and makes them picture what it'd be like to work with the candidate. They can explain what positive attributes they've noticed about the candidate that could make them a great employee. It also gives the reference a chance to view the perspective from your situation and explain the quality strengths and skill sets the candidate brings that could significantly impact the company.

8. What skills does the candidate have that you believe make them stand out as a quality candidate?

This answer gives you the opportunity to learn more about the candidate's skills listed on their resume. The reference may notice the candidate have skills that others don't realize since they use them outside of a professional environment. They may even mention skills the candidate has the candidate may not have noticed on their own. Use this answer to picture how they can use these skills toward the role you're hiring for.

Related: Q&A: Should You Include References on a Resume?

9. How would you describe the candidate's communication and listening skills?

References may notice how well the candidate interacts with others in their personal lives and can explain how well they communicate with people and listen to them on a daily basis. These are important skills for any employee to have, especially if they'll be regularly interacting with others on a team or if they're applying for a customer-facing position.

Communication and listening skills can also help you indicate the candidate's potential to be a strong leader. If they show signs of a strong leader, they may have a greater chance of advancing within the company and eventually making valuable big-picture decisions later on.

10. Would you ever work with this candidate?

You can ask this question to better gauge the reference's personal experience with the candidate and if they'd transition that into a professional experience as well. If the reference says yes with little to no hesitation, this can indicate the candidate is enjoyable to be around and can provide a positive atmosphere for other candidates. If they seem more hesitant or give a more negative answer, ask them to provide an explanation to learn more about what it's like to spend time with the candidate.

11. Describe the candidate's work ethic.

This answer tells you more about how hard working the candidate is and how committed they are to the role. Ask them about moments when they noticed the candidate work hard on a project or assignment and how the results for that project turned out. Understanding how hard the candidate works on personal projects can be a strong indication of how well they may complete their work responsibilities.

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