40+ Reference Check Questions for Every Recruiter

Plus tips on best practices and spotting red flags
Bailey Reiners
June 20, 2020
Updated: January 12, 2021
Bailey Reiners
June 20, 2020
Updated: January 12, 2021

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.

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. Click the links below to skip ahead.

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Table of Contents

 

Asking A Candidate For References

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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 do reach out to ask reference check questions, inform the reference of 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 nine different types of reference check questions for you to filter through and pick the ones most relevant to your candidate and hiring needs.

Make sure to replace [candidate] with the name of your candidate and adapt the questions as you see fit.

 

Introductory Reference Check Questions

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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 questions like the ones below will help mitigate this.

 

1. HOW DO YOU KNOW [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 [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 [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. 

 

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Employment History Questions

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During your reference check, it’s important to cover the basics and ask about the candidate’s employment history. These 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 [CANDIDATE’S] 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 PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITIES [CANDIDATE] HELD IN THAT ROLE?

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 [CANDIDATE] CHANGE ROLES WHILE AT YOUR COMPANY? IF SO, 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 PROVIDE A SUMMARY OF [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 [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 similiar resources in your role.

 

9. WHY DID [CANDIDATE] LEAVE THEIR ROLE AT 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. 
 

10. WHAT WAS [CANDIDATE’S] COMPENSATION PACKAGE IN THEIR ROLE AT YOUR COMPANY?

Before you go asking, know that in some states it’s actually illegal to ask for salary history. If you’re able to ask, however, this question can be helpful to prepare your offer and anticipate salary negotiations.

 

Candidate Persona Questions

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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. 

 

11. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE [CANDIDATE’S] STRENGTHS IN GENERAL OR IN RELATION TO [INSERT SKILLSET]?

This question provides the reference a chance to speak highly about the candidate's skills. Everyone is better at certain things than other things, which is why it’s also important to ask a follow-up question like... 

 

12. IN GENERAL, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE the SKILLS [CANDIDATE] Could 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.

 

13. HOW DO YOU SEE [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. 


14. IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT DOES [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

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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 a bit more customizable.

 

15. COULD YOU PROVIDE AN EXAMPLE OF HOW [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. 
 

16. [CANDIDATE] DOESN’T HAVE ANY EXPERIENCE WITH [INSERT JOB RESPONSIBILITY]. HOW DO YOU THINK THEY WILL BE ABLE TO COMPENSATE FOR THIS skills GAP?

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.  


17. DURING OUR INTERVIEW, [CANDIDATE] TALKED ABOUT [INSERT PROJECT]. CAN YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE ROLE THEY PLAYED IN COMPLETING 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 Questions

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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 questions will help you better understand the opportunities and limitations the candidate had in their previous role that affected their engagement levels. 

 

18. WHAT MOTIVATed [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. 
 

19. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE [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.

 

20. WHAT SKILLS DID [CANDIDATE] DEVELOP DURING THEIR TIME 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. 

 

21. DID [CANDIDATE] Achieve ANY MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS DURING THEIR TIME 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. 

 

22. WHAT PLANS DOES [CANDIDATE] HAVE FOR PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT?

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. 

 

23. CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE WORK ENVIRONMENT  [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.

 

24. HOW RELIABLE WAS [CANDIDATE] IN COMPLETING TASKS accurately and IN A TIMELY MANNER?

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. 
 

25. CAN YOU PROVIDE AN EXAMPLE OF A TIME WHEN [CANDIDATE] NEEDED TO RESOLVE A CONFLICT OR PROBLEM? 

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

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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. 
 

26. WHAT IS THE CULTURE LIKE AT YOUR COMPANY, AND HOW DID [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
 

27. IN WHAT ASPECTS OF YOUR COMPANY CULTURE DID [CANDIDATE] THRIVE IN?

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.

 

28. DID [CANDIDATE] TAKE ON ANY INITIATIVES TO GROW YOUR 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. 
 

29. WHAT OUTSIDE INTERESTS DID [CANDIDATE] BRING TO YOUR COMPANY CULTURE?

When looking for your ideal candidate, it is easy to search for someone who fits into your culture. However, it’s much more important to hire people who will add to and bring diverse characteristics to your current team. Learn more about how the candidate stood out and brought something new to their past employer. 

 

30. IN BRIEF, OUR CULTURE IS [DESCRIBE COMPANY CULTURE]. HOW DO YOU SEE [CANDIDATE] FITTING IN OR ADDING TO OUR CULTURE?

Just as you asked for 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

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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 questions to fill in the gaps. 

 

31. WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WORK WITH [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. 

 

32. WHAT KIND OF RELATIONSHIPS DID [CANDIDATE] HAVE WITH COLLEAGUES AT YOUR COMPANY AND ON YOUR TEAM?

Gain a third person’s perspective on how the candidate built and maintained relationships with other colleagues. 

 

33. HOW DID [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. 
 

34. HOW DID [CANDIDATE] SUPPORT COLLEAGUES IN THEIR ROLES?

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.

 

35. DOES [CANDIDATE] PREFER TO WORK ON A TEAM OR INDIVIDUALLY?

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 & Managerial Questions

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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 cover your bases. 
 

36. AS A MANAGER, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO HAVE [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. 

 

37. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR MANAGING/WORKING WITH [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.
 

38. AS A DIRECT REPORT, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO HAVE [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. 

 

39. AS A COLLEAGUE, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO work with [CANDIDATE]?

Sometimes candidates aren’t able to ask their current manager or direct reports to be a reference to avoid sharing the news of their pending resignation before they’re ready. Instead, they may list a current, trusted colleague as a reference. Use this opportunity to learn more about how the candidate worked with their peers.    

 

40. DO YOU SEE [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. 

 

41. CAN YOU PROVIDE AN EXAMPLE OF WHEN [CANDIDATE] acted as A LEADER 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

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Similar to the introductory questions, add a few easier-to-answer 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. 

 

42. WHAT IS ONE OF YOUR MOST MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES WITH [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. 

 

43. WOULD YOU REHIRE [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. 

 

44. GIVEN WHAT YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS ROLE AND COMPANY, DO YOU THINK [CANDIDATE] IS A GOOD FIT FOR THE 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. 

 

45. IS THERE ANYONE ELSE AT YOUR COMPANY THAT [CANDIDATE] WORKED CLOSELY WITH THAT 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.

 

Bonus: Reference Check Question Tips

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Now that you have a wide range of questions to ask a reference, let’s run through a few basic tips and tricks for making sure you get the most out of the conversation.

 

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. 

Do be kind and positive. Know that the reference may talk with the candidate about your conversation, so make sure you’re polite and end on a good note. 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. 

Don't ignore 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.

Do 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. 

 

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.

 

FREE E-BOOK: THE PATH TO APPLICATION - UNDERSTANDING THE CANDIDATE JOURNEY IN TECH. DOWNLOAD HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

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