Reference check questions: Here’s what you need to know

You can learn a lot directly from your candidates, but a reference check with their former coworkers can help you get a more complete picture. But how exactly do you conduct one and what are the most common reference check questions? Read on for our recommendations.

Why it’s important to plan reference check questions ahead of time

Do you follow a structured approach to interviews? If so, you already know the benefits: It creates consistency for your candidates and for your assessments of them. When you’re asking each person the same questions, it’s much easier to compare their answers and reduce bias from the process.

So what should your reference check focus on? Research from Robert Half shows that the top three things people hope to get from reference checks are:

  • A view into the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses (38%)
  • A description of past job duties and experience (22%)
  • Confirmation of job title and dates of employment (19%)

Greenhouse Recruiting Manager Ariana Moon writes that the purpose of reference checks at Greenhouse is “to verify our candidate’s known performance at previous/current employers and ensure that our interview process uncovered all the strengths and weaknesses related to our scorecard of the job the candidate interviewed for.”

When should you conduct reference checks and who should you talk to?

Reference checks generally take place toward the end of the hiring process. Ariana recommends conducting one after the interviews are complete but before you extend an offer to a candidate. It definitely means extra time and effort, but you’re likely to find the process worthwhile and gather valuable insights during these conversations. According to the Robert Half research mentioned earlier, senior managers report removing one in three candidates from consideration because of something they learned during a reference check.

Generally, the types of people you’ll want to speak to fall into three categories:

  • Managers: Someone who has directly managed a candidate will be able to add a lot of color on their strengths, areas for improvement, development over time and potential – all the things a good manager should care about.
  • Reports: You may also want to know what a candidate’s former reports think of them, especially if the role in question is a people-management position.
  • Peers: Peers are more likely to be friends and therefore might be more inclined to paint the candidate in a positive light. But if the peer is in another department, talking to them can be valuable for getting further insight into a candidate’s abilities to manage cross-functional projects with impact beyond their team.

What should you ask during a reference check?

To kick off the reference check conversation, Ariana recommends hitting these four points:

  • Thank the reference for their willingness to chat and let them know the call won’t take longer than 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Recap that the candidate did really well in your interview process and that you’re contemplating making an offer.
  • Let the reference know you’re using their time to make sure you have a full picture about the candidate’s fit for your role.
  • Finally, ask the reference whether they’d like any context on your company or the specific position or whether they’d prefer to jump directly into answering your questions.

Ariana also recommends doing your homework in advance so instead of wasting time asking questions you already know the answers to (like where the candidate and reference worked together and for how long), you can quickly verify facts and use the leftover time to “dig into more insightful topics.”

Once you’ve taken care of providing context and checking facts, you can put on your reporter’s hat and ask the important questions. Here are some recommended questions to ask and why we believe they’re worth asking.

  • How closely did you work with the candidate?
  • Could you share some examples of the kind of work they performed?

These questions help define the working relationship and usually lead references to talk about the aspects of the candidate that left the strongest impression on them.

  • What words come to mind when you think of this person?
  • Can you give an example of this trait?

Asking open-ended questions helps you get more information out of the reference, and following up by asking for examples ensures that they’re not just piling on the praise without anything of substance to back it up.

  • Where did the candidate shine? What kind of work did they prefer to do?
  • How did your working style complement the candidate’s working style?
  • What is something the candidate was able to help you do better? Conversly, what do you think you were able to help them do better?
  • Tell me about a challenge that you overcame together.
  • Have you seen the candidate grind through work that they or others considered less desirable because it was necessary? Can you give me an example of a time they did this?
  • What concerns would you have if you were to hire or work with the candidate again?

This is the part of the call where the reference will be particularly prepared to say amazing things. The trick is phrasing your questions in a way that gets at the things the candidate needed or needs work on without making the reference feel like they’re talking explicitly about the candidate’s weaknesses.

  • Tell me about a time the candidate went way above and beyond on a project. What do you think motivated them to do this?
  • Can you share any insight into what the candidate would look for in their ideal job opportunity? From your perspective, why are they looking for a new role?

These questions will help you understand the candidate’s goals and motivators.

  • Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you think I should know about the candidate?

Asking a question like this gives the reference a chance to share anything they feel is important but haven’t had the opportunity to discuss yet.

Is there anything you shouldn’t ask during a reference check?

It’s generally a good idea to steer away from questions that are easily answered with a yes or a no. Your goal is to collect real-life examples, and it’s hard to do that with one-word answers.

Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid any questions that touch on a candidate’s personal life such as their age, familial status or religion.

Looking for more tips on making the most of your reference check conversations? Check out 5 steps for conducting reference check conversations.

Melissa Suzuno

Melissa Suzuno is a freelance writer and former Content Marketing Manager at Greenhouse. Melissa previously built out the content marketing programs at Parklet (an onboarding and employee experience solution) and AfterCollege (a job search resource for recent grads), so she's made it a bit of a habit to help people get excited about and invested in their work. Find Melissa on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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