30+ Reference Check Questions to Learn More about Your Candidates

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30+ Reference Check Questions to Learn More about Your Candidates

Reference checking is a vital part of your recruitment process. You can base your hiring decision on the candidates’ resumes, pre-employment assessment tests, and in-person interviews. However, you should not skip this step, as it offers you insights into the applicants as no other instruments can. When you design and optimize your automated reference checking system, you need to pay attention to the reference check questions. You also have to pick the referees correctly. Their relevancy for the candidate’s background, experience, and cultural fit are as important as the questions themselves. Today, we will offer you some question examples and a few more tips for conducting a productive reference check!

Why Are Reference Checks Crucial in the Recruitment Process?

the purpose of candidate reference checks

The simple answer is that a thorough reference check can save a company from making hiring mistakes. A longer answer comes from Claudio Fernández-Aráoz. He is the author of It’s Not the How or the What but the Who: Succeed by Surrounding Yourself with the Best:

Relevant external observers are in a better position to give you an accurate estimate of whether the candidate will be able to perform concerning your organization’s specific circumstances and challenges. What’s more, they also provide perspective on the candidate’s “strengths and limitations” so that you can “support the person” once they are hired.

Rebecca Knight (2016). The Right Way to Check Someone’s References. Harvard Business Review

Recent data shows that employers’ interests still lie with candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. An Accountemps survey conducted on more than 2,800 senior managers in companies with 20 or more employees in 28 major U.S. cities reveals two important trends:

  • After a reference check, senior managers removed 1 in 3 candidates (34%) from consideration for a position within their company.
  • A whopping 38% of senior managers said that reference checking helped them gain insight into candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. At the chart’s bottom, only 10% of senior managers conducted reference checks to learn more about the applicants’ workplace accomplishments.

Conducting reference checks can save companies plenty of time and money. To make the entire process more efficient, objective, and less biased, you should use an automated reference checking system. Like many other recruiting software and tools, this one also increases your chances to hire talent fast.

The Purpose of Reference Checking

Even if you are sure you found the perfect candidate for an open position, you should still run a thorough reference check with the help of your H.R. team or reference check software. In short, this process helps you to:

  1. Detect potential warnings and issues regarding the candidate’s previous behaviors, weaknesses, attitudes, etc.
  2. Confirm that the candidate’s employment history and experience information is accurate.
  3. Check accomplishments, skills, career opportunities, and other facts by discussing with former supervisors or coworkers.
  4. Determine how the candidate works, interacts and communicates with team members and managers, displays work ethic and uses hard/soft skills.
  5. Discover more about the candidate’s dependability, attitude, personality, integrity, and other skills/strengths not mentioned on the resume.
  6. Understand how your company can integrate the candidate into its culture and help them grow professionally and personally.

34 Reference Check Questions to Ask about Your Candidates

Whether you use a hi-tech reference checking software or spend time over the phone for lengthy conversations, the questions are pivotal to your success. For clarity, we will split these sample reference check questions into categories.

I. Reference Check Questions Related to the Candidate/Referee Relationship

It would help if you started with reference questions describing the relationship between the candidate and their referees. It is crucial from the get-go to understand if the referee is relevant for the candidate’s new potential role in your organization. The referee’s reliability is also essential, so never limit your questioning to a single person. Here are some relationship-related questions you should put on the list:

  1. For how long did you and the candidate work together?
  2. What was the nature of your working relationship (hierarchy, reporting line, etc.)?
  3. How would you describe working with the candidate?
  4. Did you and the candidate have a relationship outside work? If yes, how would you describe it?
  5. How would you describe the professional and personal relationships between the candidate and their team members/rest of the company staff?

For the last question, we suggest you insist on details such as the candidates’ attitude, performance, personality, integrity, reliability & trustworthiness, teamwork skills, self-management abilities, and more. You can get all these answers from a thorough pre-employment evaluation, but a third party’s insights are extremely valuable for offering context, details, and examples.

II. Reference Check Questions Regarding the Candidates’ Strengths and Weaknesses

Remember that most senior managers want to know about future employees’ strengths and areas of improvement. You can tailor your line of questioning here, starting with the S.W.O.T analysis model. Here are some questions you should consider from both professional and personal viewpoints.

  1. In your opinion, what are the candidate’s top professional strengths?
  2. What are the candidate’s strongest personal points?
  3. What are the candidate’s biggest weaknesses when it comes to their performance?
  4. Does the candidate have areas where they need additional support during their first three months on the job?
  5. What professional areas would the candidate like to explore and develop in the future?
  6. Is there anything that could stand between the candidate and their professional growth?

These reference check questions help to hire managers and executives to calibrate information. On the one hand, you have the candidate’s pre-employment test results, resume, interview answers, etc. On the other, you have an objective recounting from someone who worked with the candidate every day. The information you now have helps you realize whether the candidate offered a reliable self-assessment and was honest in their answer.

The questions regarding the candidate’s professional/personal weaknesses, opportunities, and threats have multiple purposes. They show you whether your future employee can be successful in the new role. Such questions also help you understand if the candidate is coachable, has specific career growth objectives, or has flaws you need to factor in your hiring decision.

III. Reference Check Questions Related to Past Job Duties and Experiences

Most recruiters and executives focus more on such questions than on others. Experts say you should not skip them, as some candidates tend to exaggerate on their resumes. In addition, it is one thing to read a resume focused on a specific job role/position and a completely different one to obtain a comprehensive view of the candidate’s everyday experiences.

  1. What was the candidate’s title?
  2. What were the candidate’s role focus, main duties, and responsibilities?
  3. Did the candidate perform other tasks outside the official job description?
  4. What were the main hard skills used by the candidate in the previous role?
  5. What soft skills did the candidate master and used while working for/with you?
  6. How did the candidate perform (overall) in the previous role?
  7. What were the candidate’s biggest accomplishments in the past role?
  8. How did the candidate face work challenges, and what was the outcome?
  9. We want to hire a person who can/is _____ [fill in the most important roles/tasks/skills] for this position. How would you rate the candidate on each?
  10. Did the candidate receive any promotions while working at your company?

With these reference check questions, you can learn more about the candidate’s technical and transferable skills, performance, top talents, etc. Such a line of questioning goes beyond checking the truthfulness of the candidate’s resume. It is crucial to understand why the former company promoted the candidate (or did not). Missing skills and stronger internal candidates are possible red flags.

IV. Reference Check Questions Focusing on Candidates’ Cultural Fit

Most likely, your candidates go through a behavioral interview seasoned with some tricky questions during the recruitment process. Pick up on this idea and tailor your reference check inquiries to get deeper insights from their referees. After all, most people write “good team player” on their resumes. But, what does it mean in others’ eyes? Here are some sample reference check questions:

  1. Did the candidate complete the given tasks correctly and on time?
  2. Did the candidate show initiative while working at your company? Were those initiatives valuable?
  3. How did the candidate manage stressful situations and work problems?
  4. How did the candidate manage conflicts, if any?
  5. Does the candidate show good communication, listening, assertiveness, and empathy? Could you give me a few brief examples?
  6. Can you give me an example of the teamwork skills displayed by the candidate?
  7. Did the candidate engage in certain behaviors or displayed attitudes that affected their job performance?
  8. Did the candidate need supervision or work well independently?
  9. How would you describe the candidate’s skills to deal with and adjust to different leadership styles?
  10. What are the candidate’s strongest personality traits that could help them perform at the job we have?

From questions related to a candidate’s attitudes, behaviors, and personality to concrete examples of problem-solving skills and decision-making, you can ask referees almost anything.

V. Reference Check Questions to Help You Reach a Conclusion

The last category of questions to ask for reference check helps you get an overall idea regarding the candidate and the referees’ attitudes and feelings about them.

  1. What was the reason this candidate left your company?
  2. Would you hire this person again, and why?
  3. Is there anyone else you would recommend we speak with about this candidate?

At the end of this questionnaire, you should listen/read carefully every uttered word. You are looking for words such as “without hesitation” or “absolutely” for the second question. Also, the candidate’s and the referee’s stories regarding the reasons for leaving should match. Asking for more referees’ contact details is always a good idea, as people have different perspectives and work differently. If you talked to a former supervisor, ask for someone who worked with or under the candidate for a more extensive view.

What Can You Not Ask In a Reference Check?

While it is perfectly fine to conduct a background check with your candidate’s approval, you should avoid some questions. They are similar to those illegal inquiries you should never touch during an interview and refer to a person’s age, marital status, religious affiliation, police record, etc. Discuss matters with your legal team before you customize your reference checking software and learn what you can and cannot ask about your candidate.

How Does Our Reference Hunter System Work?

Most managers and hiring representatives talk to candidates’ referees over the phone or via emails, thus wasting time and human resources. Our Reference Hunter allows you to create custom reference check questions and templates. Your team can schedule automated reference requests and learn in real-time about completing each questionnaire through live notifications. In this way, you will have access to neat packages of feedback and information to use further in your applicants’ evaluations.

Final Thoughts

Politeness, kindness, and a sense of goodwill might compel referees to paint the candidate in the brightest colors and the shiniest of lights. For this reason, you cannot rely solely on these reference check questions, but use them as a building block of your hiring decision alongside resumes, interview results, assessments, simulations, and so on. Nevertheless, discussing with more referees about a single candidate is vital to making a great hiring decision. An automated reference checking system helps you coordinate such tasks with no effort and spend optimal time with them.

If you want to conduct a professional reference check, don’t forget to read (and download) our Candidate Reference Guide! You will learn why most employers do not perform such checks, why you should, and how to ask candidates for their referees, among others!

Now, as always, it is your time to share more about reference checking! Do you use some of the reference check questions we provided? What other lines of inquiry do you prefer when you discuss with referees? Do you call each person for a lengthy conversation, or do you use the software? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter!

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