What to Say to a Candidate Reference

Home » Reference Checking » What to Say to a Candidate Reference

We are a certified Continuing Education provider for

Man in a suit straightening his tie

What to Say to a Candidate Reference

Now that you’ve successfully obtained a reference from your candidate, you have to actually call and verify them as a reference. For a complete list of questions to ask a reference, check out our article on the topic here! There are several ways to go about setting this up, which includes:

  • Having your candidate coordinate communication with the reference, letting them know you’ll be in touch for a reference check
  • Having your candidate schedule a call and confirm an appointment time between both parties (ideal)

Encouraging your candidate to be a part of this process also lends insight into their level of engagement and motivation to help make this a smooth transition.

When you are on the phone with the reference, follow this format:

Build Rapport

Building rapport is an important part of any reference-checking process. During this stage you will be reassuring them that everything you discuss is confidential and will not be shared with the candidate.

Validate the Reference

You want to gather some information about who you’re speaking with, including the reference’s name, proper spelling and pronunciation, and their title or position. Then you might ask them a bit about what they do within the company to learn about their position more.

The goal is to understand and verify that this person is truly in a position to be considered a good reference and isn’t just the candidate’s buddy or colleague. Bob Nicoson, VP and chief HR officer at Constant Contact, suggests that social media helps play a part in understanding how valid references are, as it’s easy to check a site such as LinkedIn and verify contact within the candidate’s company. Direct supervisors and managers are the best type of reference because they can speak to the true abilities and competencies of a candidate in a work environment that is similar or likely to demand the same kind of abilities as their previous role. This allows you, as the new employer, to gauge whether the candidate will be able to “cut it” in your organization.

You might want to include here a bit about your company, the position you are considering this candidate for, and any other aspects of your business the reference may find useful.

In Your Experience…

One of my favorite questions to ask references is “what was your experience working with this candidate?” This free form question allows the reference to speak freely about their own experiences and perspective and is geared to put the reference at ease.

Check Context

Find out in what capacity they managed or supervised your candidate. Were there others on the team as well or just the candidate? Were other managers involved?

Learn from the reference’s perspective what the candidate’s role was and what they did. Then you are able to compare what the candidate told you in their interview with the reference’s perspective.

Asking “The Question”

Outlined by Bradford Smart in his book Topgrading is perhaps one of the most important questions involved in a reference check. The question goes like this:

“What would you rate this candidate on a scale of 1-10? What could they do/could have done to get to a (the next highest number)?”

Identify Performance

What were the candidate’s performance expectations and how did the company or manager determine the candidate was meeting expectations and doing a good job? How did this candidate perform in relation to other employees? Did they exceed expectations?

  • Feedback: How was this candidate with receiving and giving feedback? What was their communication style?
  • Strengths and Weaknesses: From the reference’s perspective, what were the candidate’s greatest strengths and weaknesses? Did they work well with other people or were best left alone to get their work done?

Overall Recommendation

We always want to ask the reference if there is anything else they would add to the conversation or if there is something they want us to know that we haven’t yet discussed.

Before finishing, ask if they would recommend this candidate for a job, and especially the job you’ve described, based on their experience working with them. Would the reference rehire this candidate? Why or why not?


It is important to thank the reference for their time, especially if “it’s against company policy” because they are doing you a favor by providing feedback that will be helpful in your hiring process.

Need more help?

Try our automated reference checking tool for free!

Book An Appointment

Schedule a Free Consultation to Turn your Hiring Process into a Top Talent Generating Machine

Talk With Us Now

Identify Top Candidates ASAP

(833) 332-8378

The 7 Stages of Hiring

Filter through The 7 Stages

  • Show me

  • under