You’re narrowing down your options, and you think you’ve found the right candidate for your role. Now you just need to complete one final check to make sure everything about this candidate lines up.
Tips for Reference Questions
Cover the basics, like determining how the reference knows the candidate and what their job responsibilities were. Ask the reference about the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Try to get a sense of how the candidate fit with or added to their previous company's culture. Don’t be afraid to ask for specific examples. Be polite, positive and to the point.
Knowing the reference check questions to ask will help you get the final answers you need to make a confident hiring decision. Because every company, candidate and role are different, we’ve provided a wide range of reference check questions for you to use and customize for your specific needs. You don’t need to ask every question on this list; instead, use it for inspiration as you come up with your own ideas.
Table of Contents
- How to Ask a Candidate for References
- Reference Check Best Practices
- Introductory Reference Check Questions
- Employment History Questions
- Candidate Persona Questions
- Job Description Questions
- Employee Engagement Questions
- Company Culture Questions
- Employee Relationship Questions
- Leadership and Managerial Questions
- Closing Reference Check Questions
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How to Ask a Candidate for References
Before asking candidates for a reference, make sure your hiring team has determined the type of references you need to fill in any gaps and verify what you already know about the candidate.
Are you interested in talking with their previous manager to hear more about a project they mentioned during the interview, or maybe a past direct report to learn about the candidate’s management style?
Once you’ve determined the type of references you need, share this information with the candidate, and ask them to identify the people that best match your criteria. Request that they provide a name, job title, their relationship, email and phone number for each reference. Also, tell the candidate to inform the reference that your hiring team intends to contact them. That way the reference has time to prepare and isn’t caught off guard when you contact them.
When you reach out to a reference, identify whom you are calling about and what you hope to get out of the conversation. This helps the reference tailor their answers to highlight the qualities you want to hear about the candidate.
There are a number of different reference check questions you can ask, but there isn’t enough time to get all of them answered in a single conversation. So, we’ve broken down different types of reference check questions for you to filter through and pick the ones most relevant to your candidate and hiring needs.
Reference Check Best Practices
Let’s run through a few basic tips and tricks for making sure you get the most out of the conversation.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Don’t ask yes or no questions. The majority of our example questions require the reference to elaborate on their response, but if there’s still a noticeable gap in information, ask follow-up questions.
Be Kind and Positive
Know that the reference may talk with the candidate about your conversation, so make sure you’re polite. If you don’t end up choosing the candidate, you want that information to come from you, not their reference. But don’t be overly positive: Try to remain neutral as best you can during these conversations. Just as you don’t want candidates to hear that the conversation went poorly, it’s also not good for them to feel like they have the job before you’ve made your final decision.
Pay Attention to Vague Responses
If a reference is being vague or avoiding a question, there’s probably a reason for it. If they’re not willing to elaborate, it might be the sign of a red flag.
Look for Differences in Narrative
Many of these questions you have already asked candidates, so look for differences in responses. If you find any, there may be a lack of information or one of the parties may not be telling the full truth — another potential red flag.
Avoid Asking Inappropriate Questions
This includes questions about whether the candidate has kids, what their religious affiliations are or about their age.
If you’re asking for references, you’re likely at a good place in the recruitment process in terms of making your next hire. However, this stage can either build confidence or raise red flags about the candidate you’re interested in hiring. Make sure you ask the questions that will help you make this decision and come up with others that better suit the specific candidate you’re looking for. To get more tips and tricks on recruiting great candidates, check out our tech recruiter resources.
Introductory Reference Check Questions
It can be a bit awkward and intimidating to have a conversation with a complete stranger about a candidate’s potential for your role. Focusing the first few minutes of your conversation on lighter, lead-in reference check questions like the ones below will help mitigate this.
1. How Do You Know the Candidate?
You should already know the candidate’s relationship to the reference, but asking again helps you verify both the candidate’s and the reference’s credibility. The reference should share how long they’ve known the candidate and in what capacity.
2. To What Degree Did You Interact With the Candidate?
Even if the candidate and reference were colleagues, that doesn’t mean they collaborated on projects or even worked on the same team. This question solidifies the type of relationship the candidate and reference have or had, whether it be distant colleagues, work best friends or somewhere in between.
3. How Would You Describe the Candidate’s Personality?
Describing someone’s personality is challenging, especially if you don’t know them that well. This question allows the reference to talk about the candidate as a person before diving into their employment history.
Employment History Questions For Reference Checks
During your reference check, it’s important to cover the basics and ask about the candidate’s employment history. These reference questions elicit brief answers and should not be the bulk of your conversation. However, it’s always a good idea to have a reference confirm and clarify the facts the candidate already provided.
4. What Was the Candidate’s Job Title at Your Company? Can You Describe Their Role?
Job titles can vary by company, industry and region, so this question allows you to delve a bit deeper and verify how their previous role compares to the one at your company. And if the candidate is coming from a different background, it helps you better understand their past experiences.
5. What Were the Candidate’s Primary Responsibilities?
This is a big one that should be asked during every reference check. The primary responsibilities a candidate held at their previous job should directly relate to your open role, and at least some of their secondary responsibilities should too.
6. Did the Candidate Change Roles at Your Company? How Did Their Role Change?
If the candidate moved around in the company, either laterally or upward, it’s a great indicator that they were a high performer and were valued by their previous employer. This question gives you a better scope of how their career has evolved and the skills they’ve gained along the way.
7. Can You Summarize the Candidate’s Performance Review?
If you’re talking to the candidate’s manager or an HR professional, they should have insight into their performance review. It can be difficult to remember certain projects the candidate worked on, so reviews help the reference look back and speak to a candidate’s performance at different stages of their career at the company.
Be mindful of the fact that the reference will not have this information readily available, so ask them ahead of time — either directly or via the candidate — to have it ready for your conversation.
8. What Resources Did Your Company Provide the Candidate to Help Fulfill Their Responsibilities?
This question allows you to understand what resources the candidate might expect in your role. Perhaps they worked on a different software platform or with a different language, and will expect access to similar resources in your role.
9. Why Did the Candidate Leave Your Company?
It’s important to know why a candidate left their previous company in search of new employment opportunities. Hopefully, the decision was the candidate’s, and they were simply looking for something new and challenging to move forward in their career. However, it’s often not that simple, so it’s helpful to hear someone else’s perspective on the departure.
Candidate Persona Reference Check Questions
For every open role, your hiring team should create a unique candidate persona, which helps you write your job description, tailor your interview and ask the right reference check questions. You should write more specific questions that help narrow down the candidate who best matches your candidate persona, but here are a few general questions you can ask.
10. How Would You Describe the Candidate’s Strengths?
This question provides the reference a chance to speak highly about the candidate’s skills, both in general and in relation to specific areas.
11. What Skills Could the Candidate Improve Upon?
For every strength there is a weakness, and as a future employer, you want to know exactly what to expect from a candidate. This can be a challenging question for references to answer. However, they should be willing and able to provide a few examples of the ways a candidate could improve.
12. How Do You See the Candidate Growing in Their Career?
Even if the candidate doesn’t know how they see their career progressing, a colleague or manager should be acutely aware of their strengths, interests and aspirations.
13. What Does the Candidate Need to Do to Further Grow in Their Career?
Employee development is a key characteristic of any successful employee, and the answer to this question can help your hiring team prepare an employee development plan to fill skills gaps and get the candidate excited about the opportunities your company offers.
Job Description Questions for Reference Checks
When talking to references, be sure to leverage the job description and candidate persona you created for the specific role. Because every role is different, we’ve left these questions for references a bit more customizable.
14. Could You Provide an Example of How the Candidate Exemplified Their Ability to [Insert Skill Related to Job Description]?
If there is specific criteria on your job description that you want to make sure the candidate meets, ask the reference to provide a specific example.
15. The Candidate Doesn’t Have Experience With [Insert Job Responsibility]. How Do You Think They Will Be Able to Compensate for That?
If you notice a glaring gap in the candidate’s experience, see if their reference can provide insight into how the candidate would accommodate for the missing skill.
16. The Candidate Talked About [Insert Project] During Our Interview. Can You Tell Me More About The Role They Played in This Project?
During the interview process, if there was something the candidate said that stood out to you or you want to hear more about, ask this question.
Employee Engagement Reference Questions
From an application and interview, it’s difficult to glean whether or not the candidate was an engaged employee in their previous role. Making a point to address these concerns with a reference can help your team confidently decide whether or not the candidate will do well among your colleagues.
Also, just because a candidate was not engaged in their previous job doesn't mean they won't be engaged in your role. These reference check questions will help you better understand the opportunities and limitations the candidate had in their previous role that affected their engagement levels.
17. What Motivated the Candidate to Excel in Their Job?
If the reference is able to answer this question, the information will be greatly beneficial during the negotiation process and throughout the candidate’s time at your company. It will inform you on how to keep the employee motivated and engaged in their work — a significant challenge for most employers.
18. How Would You Describe the Candidate’s Communication Style?
Everyone communicates differently. While candidates and new hires will likely accommodate to their future employer's preferences, knowing how a candidate prefers to communicate will help avoid complications and gauge compatibility.
19. What Skills Did the Candidate Develop While at Your Company?
A key factor in keeping employees engaged is growing their skillset and keeping their work interesting. Learning how a candidate’s skill set grew can shine light on how their engagement changed over time.
20. What Were the Candidate’s Major Accomplishments at Your Company?
Achieving a major accomplishment is a huge motivator for employees. This question provides the reference a chance to brag about the candidate’s accomplishments. Not only that but what they see as a major accomplishment may differ from the candidate’s answer.
21. What Professional Development Plans Does the Candidate Have?
The reference may not know the answer to this question, but if they were the candidate’s direct report or manager, they should have had a conversation about growth at some point.
22. Can You Describe the Work Environment the Candidate Experienced at Your Company?
Understanding the environment a candidate previously worked in can help your team better prepare a personalized onboarding experience and accommodate the candidate to the best of your abilities.
23. How Reliable Was the Candidate in Completing Tasks Quickly and Accurately?
Engaged employees are more likely to be on top of their workload and complete assignments on time and up to standard. The answer to this question is also an indicator of the reliableness of the candidate.
24. Could You Provide an Example of When the Candidate Needed to Resolve a Conflict?
Conflict resolution and problem solving are key to any role. While you have likely asked the candidate a similar question during the interview, the reference may have a different or better example that they can speak to.
Company Culture Questions
Identifying how a candidate will integrate with your company culture is challenging, especially if you don’t know how they contributed to their previous company’s culture. An outsider, like a reference, can provide a third party account of how the candidate engaged in their previous company’s culture.
25. What Is the Culture Like at Your Company, and How Did the Candidate Engage With Your Team Culture?
Before you ask how the candidate played a role in your team’s culture, first ask them to briefly describe their culture so you have some context. Then ask them how the candidate was a contributing member of the organizational culture.
26. In What Aspects of Your Company Culture Did the Candidate Thrive?
Check to see if the candidate was a contributing member of a company club, athletic group or employee resource group. This helps you predict where the candidate will gravitate toward within your culture. You can also utilize this information to highlight more specific aspects of your culture during the offer phase.
27. Did The Candidate Take Initiative to Shape or Advance the Culture?
Learn more about the degree to which the candidate was involved in the culture. Sure they may have been a member of a club, but perhaps they also held a leadership role or organized an event.
28. Do You See the Candidate Fitting In — or Adding to — Our Company Culture?
Just as you asked them to describe their culture, describe your company culture so the reference can get a better idea of the type of company the candidate may be joining. Then you can dig a bit deeper to ask how they predict the candidate will both fit in and add to your current culture.
Employee Relationship Questions For References
Understanding the types of relationships the candidate held with past colleagues also helps you see how they interacted with the company culture as well as how engaged they were. Here are a few reference check questions to fill in the gaps.
29. What Was It Like to Work With the Candidate?
You can glean the answer to this question from previous parts of your conversation with the reference, but if not, don’t forget to ask the reference what their general experience was like to work with the candidate.
30. How Did the Candidate Connect With Colleagues at Your Company?
It’s difficult to determine during an interview whether a candidate is simply being polite or if they are genuinely trying to make a connection with interviewers. Learn from their past by asking their reference about how the candidate made a concerted effort to build relationships with colleagues.
31. How Did the Candidate Support Their Colleagues?
It’s one thing to be friends with colleagues and it’s another to support them in their roles. Learn more about what the candidate did in their previous job to build up the team, share resources and see if they were a go-to person for something in particular.
32. Did the Candidate Prefer to Work Individually or on a Team?
While candidates and new hires want to be accommodating, eventually their team learns if they are more of an independent worker, group worker or somewhere in-between. Skip the guessing game and ask the reference.
Leadership and Managerial Questions
Whether you’re hiring the candidate for a managerial or leadership role, or you want to determine if they have the potential for career advancement, here are a few questions to ask references to cover your bases.
33. What Was It Like to Have the Candidate as a Direct Report?
Managing direct reports can be difficult as everyone has different learning and working styles. Responses to this question help determine if it's a good fit for the candidate to be a manager of existing employees.
34. What Was It Like to Have the Candidate as Your Manager?
Management styles can and should vary as managers have different direct reports. See how the candidate’s past direct reports interpret their management style to determine if they would be a good manager or leader on your hiring team.
35. Do You Have Any Advice for Working With the Candidate?
You can also ask more specifically if the reference has any tips to build a relationship with the candidate, create communication guidelines and ultimately set the candidate up for success in their prospective role.
36. Do You See the Candidate Growing Into a Managerial or Leadership Role?
Depending on the role you’re hiring for, it is helpful to determine if the candidate has interest or potential to hold a leadership role later in their career. Nearly half of job seekers want to know how they will grow in their career before they accept a job offer and leadership is often an ideal career path for candidates.
37. Could You Give an Example of When the Candidate Demonstrated Leadership at Your Company?
If the reference believes the candidate would make a good leader down the road, ask them to provide an account of the candidate exemplifying leadership skills. Find the proof in the pudding.
Closing Reference Check Questions
Similar to the introductory questions, add a few easier-to-answer reference questions toward the end of the interview. Doing so can end a stressful conversation on a positive note, and provide the reference with an opportunity to cover any additional information they didn’t already share.
38. What Is a Memorable Experience You Have With the Candidate?
Ask the reference of something they remember most from their time working with the candidate. Their answer says a lot about the impression the candidate made with their previous colleague.
39. Would You Rehire the Candidate in the Future?
A simple yet blunt question. If a reference is excited about the idea of rehiring the candidate in the future, there’s a good chance you’ve found a great candidate.
40. Given What You Know, Do You Think the Candidate Is a Good Fit for This Job?
You know your role. The reference knows the candidate. See what the reference thinks about your job opportunity and the candidate’s potential given the limited information they know about your company and open role.
41. Is There Another Person at Your Company With Whom the Candidate Worked Closely I Could Speak to?
To gain additional feedback about the candidate from a different perspective, you can ask their reference to provide additional references. They may need to ask permission before providing you contact information, but it’s typically a good sign if a referral is willing to provide an additional reference.
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