3 of the Most Effective Reference Interview Questions

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3 of the Most Effective Reference Interview Questions

When conducting a reference interview, it’s not as simple as just calling the reference up and saying, “hey, was this person good?”  Taking the time to know what to ask, how to ask it, and having the preparation built up before you dial is critical to success. These skills can apply to any interview situation you’re in or frankly, life in general.

Here are some effective techniques to use when conducting a reference interview.

Be prepared

Who was it that said ‘failing to plan is planning to fail?’  This quote is often attributed first to Benjamin Franklin and later to Winston Churchill.  Either way, it’s absolutely solid advice. Take the time to list out what you want to learn from the reference interview.  This is your one chance to hear first hand what it was like working with the candidate. Don’t go in haphazardly or blind, which leads to our next point.

Ask the right questions

It’s not as simple as ‘ask and ye shall receive.’   By now, we should all know that asking the right  questions is critical to finding out what we want to know.  And since you’ve already followed the “be prepared” advice, you will automatically know that going into the the reference interview with a solid list of questions in hand is the right move.  To keep it high level, separate what you want to know into two main sections for the reference interview.

First, collect basic info that helps you establish dates of employment, job title, responsibilities held, and salary the candidate had. This should be straightforward and easy to accomplish.

Second, get into the types of questions that help you really get to know the candidate through the eyes of someone who worked with them.  These can include things like:

  • Tell me about their communication style.
  • How did they handle feedback, both positive and negative?
  • Would you rehire this person?

For a more comprehensive list, go here.  


Lots of people think they are pretty good listeners.  However, take the time to brush up on this important skill.  You just might be surprised to find you could use some pointers when it comes down to the nitty gritty of it.  Being a good listener isn’t just about not talking when the other person speaks or nodding your head and saying “mm-hmm.”  A good listener does much more.   During your reference interview, don’t interrupt or jump to conclusions while the other person is talking.  Do ask types of questions that clarify what they have shared or give them lots of options in how they can answer by asking open ended questions.

Wrap up

Being able to talk to a reference is practically a privilege when it comes to hiring great candidates.  You get the opportunity to talk one on one with someone who knows the candidate in a work environment really well.   Take the time to prepare (you can re-use this over and over again), ask the right questions, and listen really well, even if it takes a bit of time to brush up on your listening skills.  Lastly, these skills aren’t just for hiring, they work wonders in real life too.

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