Why you should check references and ask reference check questions
When you interview a candidate about their employment history and past professional experiences, their answers can be biased — even if they’re striving to be sincere — because they want to make the best impression possible. This means that getting the perspective of a third party who has worked with or managed the candidate can provide better insight into how the candidate behaves on the job and how well they perform.
In all, there are three primary reasons to check a candidate’s references. First, a reference can verify whether the candidate actually has the job experience and skills they claim. Conducting a reference check can also give you a glimpse into the candidate’s character, such as their work ethic and willingness to meet and overcome challenges. Additionally, a reference might share unique skills and abilities the candidate may not have shared, or further validate those they did share.
Here’s a tip: When asking candidates for references, request that they include at least one former manager. While gaining coworkers’ perspectives is important, leaders are responsible for regularly evaluating their employees and can often provide more details about the candidate’s overall job performance.
8 important questions to ask references
The questions you ask a candidate’s references will determine how well you’re able to uncover the most valuable insight for the best hiring decision. Here are eight reference check questions you can use to help determine if the candidate you’re pursuing is the best fit for your job.
1. What was it like to work with this candidate?
Asking a reference this question will prompt them to share their day-to-day experience working alongside or managing the candidate. Their response can shed light on things like the candidate’s general attitude in the workplace, their level of trustworthiness and reliability as well as how they treat colleagues, perform their job duties and tackle projects. All of this combined will give you a better idea of how well a candidate will mesh with the rest of the team and succeed in a new role.
2. What are this candidate’s greatest strengths?
While the candidate has likely already shared their strengths, abilities and skills with you, colleagues and managers may see a team members’ strengths in a different light. Often, the qualities other people notice are the ones we exhibit the most. By asking this reference check question, you can identify which skills and abilities you can expect the candidate to display most often.
3. What were this candidate’s biggest areas of opportunity while you worked together?
Everyone has weaknesses and skills they need to improve, but it’s crucial to make sure a candidate’s shortcomings don’t conflict with critical elements of the job you’re hiring for. Asking this question will help clarify specific ways the candidate may need to improve to meet their full potential at your company. Just be sure to consider the length of time that’s passed since the reference worked with the candidate as they may have overcome these weaknesses in the meantime.
4. What was one of this candidate’s biggest accomplishments while you worked together?
Before extending a job offer, it’s important to determine whether or not a candidate is someone who regularly goes above and beyond their prescribed duties. Asking this question will give references the opportunity to reflect on moments when the candidate leveraged their strengths, displayed unique skills or overcame a difficult challenge. This can tell you more about how the candidate may behave when faced with similar needs and challenges at your company.
5. If you could hire this candidate again, would you? Why or why not?
This simple question may be the most critical one on the list. A reference who would rehire someone shows that the candidate is honorable and adds real value to a team. However, if you come across a reference that would hesitate to hire a candidate again, see this as a warning or red flag. Be sure to understand the reference’s reasoning behind their answer before making a final decision.
6. Why did this candidate leave your company?
Whether the candidate was laid off, looking for new challenges or switching career fields, asking this reference check question can validate what the candidate has already told you. If you discover the reasons don’t match up, it may be a red flag the candidate isn’t being completely upfront with you.
7. How did this candidate handle challenges?
You’ve likely asked the candidate a similar question, but consider getting a reference’s perspective on how they’ve handled difficult situations (e.g., tough deadlines, interpersonal conflict, tight budgets). This can reveal how well the candidate works under pressure and how they handle stressful situations — i.e., do they appear calm and composed or agitated and annoyed?
8. Tell me something about this candidate that might not be listed on their resume.
This purposely vague question gives references a chance to elaborate on any of the candidate’s skills, traits or accomplishments you might’ve missed. For example, a reference who has worked closely with the candidate might be able to talk about their non-industry experience (e.g., side jobs, volunteer work, impressive skills), hobbies outside of work, or unique qualities, characteristics or personality traits.
The reference check is an integral part of the hiring process and can help you uncover information about a candidate you may not otherwise discover. By asking the right questions, you can gain a better understanding of the individual you’re considering and determine whether they’re the best fit for the job.