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10 Insightful Questions To Ask References Before Making a Hiring Decision

You can gather almost all the information you need to make a hiring decision from a candidate’s resume, a phone screen and an in-person interview. However, there’s another crucial step to help you determine whether someone is a match for your open position: conducting a reference check.

This check is an integral part of the hiring process and can help you glean details about a candidate you might not otherwise discover. Understanding what questions to ask references when performing a reference check can help you can gain a greater understanding of the applicant and learn whether they’re a good fit for the job.

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What is a reference?

References are individuals a job applicant has provided in order to vouch for them in some way. Supervisory references provide a clear picture of what it’s like to manage and interact with your potential new employee. They help you determine how well the individual might fit within your company’s culture and provide insight into their attitude and aptitude at work. What’s more, they can help you quickly discover whether a candidate has been honest in their application and interview. Occasionally, personal references, such as friends and family, may be included on an application. Understandably, these references are generally less useful for making a sound hiring decision.

Why you should ask employer reference check questions

When you interview a candidate about their employment history and skills, their answers can be biased—even if they’re striving to be sincere. This is understandable because they want to make a good impression. Getting the perspective of a third party gives you deeper insight into how the individual behaves on the job.

There are three primary reasons to check an applicant’s references. The first is honesty. A reference can verify whether the candidate has the experience and skills they’ve listed on their resume. Second, conducting reference checks gives you a glimpse into the individual’s attitude, from their work ethic to their willingness to meet and overcome challenges. Finally, the reference might share unique skills and abilities the candidate didn’t, or further validate those they did share.

You should always aim to get a reference from the employee’s direct line manager. Not only are they likely to have a more unbiased view of the candidate, but they’ll also have a high-level understanding of the individual’s impact on the company.

10 questions to ask references

The questions you ask a candidate’s references can uncover a great deal about that individual and the value they can add to your organization. Remember to pay attention to the tone of voice and language each person uses. If they sound enthusiastic, upbeat and positive when talking about the candidate, you’re onto a winner. On the other hand, if they sound uninterested, vague and hesitant, there may be underlying issues.

1. How long did the candidate work for your company?

Always start with questions about the information listed on the applicant’s resume. Ask how long the candidate worked for their previous employer and confirm the position they held. These fundamental questions tell you whether the individual is honest. If they’ve lied about their skills and background, you might not be able to trust them on the job.

Of course, not everyone is super organized and remembers precise dates—so be sure to give applicants a few months’ leeway. Rounding experience up or down isn’t a concern, but six months or more of a discrepancy could signal a red flag.

2. If you could hire this candidate again, would you? Why or why not?

This simple question may be the most critical one. Although it’s second on this list because of its importance, it’s a great one to finish the call with. A reference who’d rehire someone shows that the candidate is honorable and adds real value to a team. Listen for warmth and fondness in their voice, as this is a sign that the potential new employee may be a true asset.

On the other hand, if you come across a reference who’d hesitate to hire a candidate again, see this as a warning. That said, be sure to understand the reasoning behind their answer before making a final decision. For example, the candidate might not have been a good fit for that company’s culture—which is why they’re leaving to come to yours, where they will be.

3. What was one of this candidate’s biggest accomplishments while you worked together?

Before extending a job offer, it’s important to determine whether a candidate is willing to go above and beyond their prescribed duties. Asking this question gives a reference the opportunity to reflect on moments when the candidate leveraged their strengths, displayed unique skills or overcame a difficult challenge.

If they struggle to think of something, it may be a sign that the employee was happy to blend into the background and do the bare minimum. Depending on the role they’re applying for, this could be an issue.

4. What was it like to work with this candidate?

Asking this open-ended question prompts a reference to share their day-to-day experience managing the candidate. Their response can shed light on aspects such as the candidate’s general attitude in the workplace and their level of trustworthiness and reliability, as well as how they treat colleagues, perform their job duties and tackle projects. All this combined can paint a picture of how well a candidate may mesh with the rest of the team and succeed in their new role.

Generally speaking, when a reference has had a good experience with a candidate, the compliments will roll off their tongue. Hesitancy and vague or clipped responses could be a sign that the manager had challenges with the individual.

5. What are this candidate’s greatest strengths?

While the candidate has likely already shared their strengths, abilities and skills with you, managers may see their strengths in a different light. Often, the qualities other people notice are the ones we exhibit the most. By asking this employer reference check question, you can identify which skills and abilities you can expect the candidate to display most often.

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 that the candidate isn’t being completely upfront with you.

Everyone makes mistakes, but owning them, being honest and having a plan to improve are crucial for progress. Candidates who are dishonest will struggle to move forward because they’re displaying a tendency to avoid issues rather than tackle them.

7. How did this candidate handle challenges?

You may have asked the candidate a similar question, but consider getting a reference’s perspective on how they’ve handled difficult situations, such as tough deadlines, interpersonal conflicts or tight budgets. This can reveal how well the individual works under pressure and how they handle stressful situations.

Knowing whether they appear calm and composed or agitated and annoyed can give you valuable insight into their attitude. In most cases, an employee with a positive, solution-focused attitude who needs more training will be more of an asset than a highly experienced candidate with a negative mindset.

8. Can you tell me something about this candidate that might not be listed on their resume?

This deliberately vague question gives references a chance to elaborate on the candidate’s skills, traits and accomplishments. For example, someone who worked closely with the individual might mention their nonindustry experience (e.g., side jobs, volunteer work, impressive skills) or hobbies outside of work. They may describe a time the candidate demonstrated a great attitude in a nonprofessional context that showed how willing they were to go the extra mile and help people.

9. Is there anyone else you’d recommend I speak to?

It’s important to get as much insight as possible on your applicant. The reference may not have worked closely with your candidate or perhaps managed them only for a short time. Suggesting someone else who had more experience with them may offer you a different perspective.

10. How would you rate the candidate’s communication skills?

Employers are realizing the importance of soft skills at a rapid rate. While it can be difficult to describe communication skills on a resume, it is an incredibly important detail for most positions. This could include speaking with customers and vendors or simply communicating with co-workers or managers. 

The element of communication in this question could easily be replaced by any soft skill you have deemed important to the position the candidate is applying for. Some other soft skills you may want to know about include critical thinking, teamwork, time management and creativity.


FAQs about which questions to ask references

Are there employment reference questions you can’t ask?

There are questions that you shouldn’t ask during a reference check, as it’s illegal to make hiring decisions based on race, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender or any protected characteristic. People don’t have control over these factors, so they aren’t relevant to the reference check or hiring process. Disability status, health conditions, marital status and familial status are also off-limits.

Should you ask reference check questions by phone or email?

Although you can conduct reference checks by email, you may miss some key intel by doing so. A reference’s tone of voice and gaps in their responses might tell you how they truly feel about a candidate. If they sound warm and forthcoming about the candidate, it’s clear they enjoyed working with them. On the other hand, if there are a lot of pauses or the reference sounds indifferent, they probably didn’t have a memorable experience with that individual.


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