When hiring for a role, you can count on job seekers to cast themselves in the best light possible. In fact, they are often encouraged to sing their own praises in job interviews or exaggerate accomplishments. While it’s natural for candidates to want to impress potential employers, how can recruiters and hiring managers truly assess if the job seeker will be an asset to the company?

This is where the reference check comes in. Here’s what you need to know about reference checks as a recruiter or hiring manager, including best practices and specific reference check questions to ask to better understand the candidate and their potential fit for your company.

What are reference checks, and how do they work? 

Reference checks serve as a second opinion when considering a given candidate. They allow you to dig deeper by connecting with the candidate’s former employers, co-workers and educators (known as their “references”).

Typically, a reference check occurs in the later stages of the interview process, when you’re seriously considering hiring a candidate. It can include contacting their references to learn about the candidate’s knowledge, skills and character, as well as to verify their former employment. 

While not all employers will conduct reference checks, many do — often dependent on company practices or industry. For example, employers in the financial, health care or manufacturing sectors may be more inclined to conduct reference checks for potential candidates due to the high-stakes nature of their work. 

When contacting references provided by the candidate, what you learn will obviously not be completely objective. However, you can learn a lot about your potential hire’s character and working style by asking references about things like a candidate’s experiences working with others.

Best practices for conducting reference checks

Before you begin reaching out to a candidate’s references, you’ll want to keep a few best practices in mind to ensure your reference checks go smoothly:

  1. Notify candidates at the start. If your company intends to conduct reference checks for candidates, make it clear in the job posting so that candidates can prepare. Ask them to provide a few people as references, either in the job application itself or after the initial screening stage.
  2. Get consent before reaching out to references. Even if you’ve mentioned in the job posting that you may be conducting reference checks, be sure to ask for consent. Make sure your candidate is aware that you’ll be doing so, and explicitly ask the candidate if you can contact their references, either before or as part of their interview. 
  3. Be intentional. Before talking to your candidate’s references, reach out to everyone involved in the hiring process to gather their feedback on the candidate. This will help you go into reference check conversations with a clear idea of what to look for, and which areas of the candidate’s background you should dig a bit deeper into. 
  4. Let references know their answers are confidential. At the beginning of the conversation, ensure the candidate’s references know that their answers won’t be shared with the candidate. This sets the stage for a more transparent conversation.  
  5. Avoid questions about a candidate’s personal life. Do not ask references for personal information on the candidate, such as their age, familial status, religion or country of origin. Not only could these questions be perceived as discriminatory — it’s also illegal to ask them.

Questions to ask references 

The art of asking good reference check questions involves being specific, yet open-ended. Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” To get the most valuable insights from your reference checks, don’t simply fact-check their resume or use a vague, “What was it like to work with this candidate?” 

For more meaningful conversations about candidates, try these questions instead: 

1. What was your relationship with the candidate? Can you tell me about how you two worked together? 

This straightforward question serves a few purposes: it gets the conversation flowing, clarifies the candidate’s relationship with the reference and gives you more context around how often or closely the candidate worked with them. For example, if you learn that a given reference didn’t work very closely with the candidate, you might focus more closely on the answers from another reference who did. 

2. What skills does this candidate have that will help them succeed in this position, and have you seen the candidate perform a similar role? 

This is a good question to ask near the beginning of the conversation, ideally after you’ve described the role you’re hiring for and the specific skills you’re looking for in a candidate. By describing the job, you’ll clarify to the reference what you’re looking for — increasing the chance of gaining meaningful insight into the candidate’s work, and how that experience has prepared them for this role. 

3. What is one of this candidate’s accomplishments that stands out from when you worked with them? 

Ideally, this question will get you an interesting story about how the candidate has made an impact at their previous role. In certain cases, it can even reveal a candidate’s overstatement of their impact on a project — or highlight a too-humble candidate’s successes. 

4. Can you name two or three of this candidate’s strengths? 

This question shows you more of what the candidate does well, and can be easily modified to speak to the role you’re trying to fill. For example, if you’re considering the candidate for a managerial role, you can ask: “Can you name two or three of this candidate’s strengths that make them a great leader?” If you’re hiring for a role that requires a lot of cross-functional work, you can ask the reference to list some strengths that make the candidate a good collaborator. 

5. What are some areas for growth for this candidate? 

This is a reframing of the typical question, “What are the candidate’s weaknesses?” Asking someone to list a candidate’s shortcomings may be uncomfortable for the reference; no one wants to feel they are jeopardizing a colleague’s future job. So asking about “areas for growth” frames the question more positively, and can shed light on a candidate’s areas of opportunity.

6. How would you describe the candidate’s working style?

This question will help you gain a better understanding of how the candidate will fit in with their team. Perhaps the team members get their best ideas from bouncing ideas off one another in meetings, but the candidate is described as someone who prefers to think through things on their own before coming up with a solution — that can be useful information to consider when thinking through team dynamics.

7. Why did this candidate leave your company?

This question verifies that the candidate is truthful, and that they haven’t omitted the details of a glaring incident related to their departure. Keep an eye out for vagueness from the reference, or for details that perhaps don’t match up with what the candidate has provided. 

8. Would you recommend this candidate for the role? Why or why not?

This is a great concluding question to ask, and can be especially useful to gain more substantive information if the reference was vague or evasive during the interview. 

In summary

Reference checks are a great way for hiring professionals to ensure a candidate is a good fit, and learn more about what they’ll bring to the table. By mastering the art of conducting effective reference checks, you can successfully make the right hires for your organization, ultimately improving collaboration, performance and retention — all while strengthening your company culture.