Reference Check Questions to Help You Make Better Hires

You’ve found the perfect person to fill your open role. They’ve made it through the application process and assessments. They wowed the team during interviews and you’re ready to make them an offer. 

If everything has gone well so far, it can be tempting to move right ahead without conducting background or reference checks. However, these last steps are a crucial part of making the right hires. Background checks can help you look into someone’s legal and work history and ensure they are who they say they are. 

Reference checks, on the other hand, are an opportunity to chat with the candidates’ previous managers or colleagues, not only to fact-check their resume, but also to get a feel for how they perform at work and the impact they’ve made in past jobs. 

All too often, hiring managers look at the reference check step as merely a box to check, or a speed bump on the way to making a hire. But what if, instead, you saw it as an opportunity to interview someone else about your candidate? 

The right reference check questions can help you prepare to manage your new hire better and to understand their needs and how to set them up for success in your role. That’s why we compiled some of the best reference check questions that can improve your recruitment process and help you make better hiring decisions. 

Reference check questions  

Let’s face facts: Anyone your candidate lists as a reference is probably going to have only positive things to say about them. After all, why would they ask someone to vouch for them who might say less-than-nice things about them? A candidate’s list of references is pretty much their own personal marketing team.

So how do you move past the more general raving reviews that many hiring managers have come to expect during a reference call? The simple answer is to tailor your questions to be specific and targeted at what you’d most like to know about an applicant.  

Asking “How was it managing so-and-so?” might invite vague answers of the “great” and “good” variety.  By changing your question to “Can you give me two examples of how so-and-so accomplished their main priorities?” you are asking the reference to be specific and speak directly about the applicant’s job performance.

With this in mind, let’s go over a few types of reference check questions you might ask, with some specific examples under each category. 

Confirmation of resume information

Talking to references is a great way to make sure that the information on your candidate’s resume checks out. At CareerPlug, we say “Trust but verify.” We don’t assume that a candidate is being dishonest, but we double-check the facts so that we can be confident (and excited) about the offers we make! 

It’s also hard to ignore stats like these: 40% of people lie on their resumes and three out of four employers have caught candidates in a lie. 

people lie during the hiring process

Here are some questions you can use to start your reference check discussion and confirm what you’ve learned from a candidate’s resume and interviews: 

  • Can I confirm their dates of employment with your company? 
  • What were their responsibilities while working for you? 
  • How did you measure their performance? 

Questions to get to know your candidate better

During the interview process, you learn what a candidate wants you to know about who they are. During reference checks, you’re given the unique opportunity to get another perspective on the person you are considering hiring for your open role. 

Use reference checks as a chance to get to know your candidates even better. This can help you determine if someone is the right fit and help you provide the resources that they need as they take on their new role. 

Here are some questions that can help you get to know your candidate through their references: 

  • What are their strengths? 
  • Where is their biggest room for improvement? 
  • Has this person ever taught you anything? (or) Have you ever learned anything new from this person? (If so, what?)
  • What three words would you use to describe this person?
  • Can you give me an example of a time this person impressed you?

Notice that the questions we recommend are open-ended and not simple yes/no questions. One popular question hiring managers like to ask is, “Would you hire this person again?” But an answer like “yes” simply doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Remember that most references won’t want to risk saying the wrong thing to their colleague’s potential employer, so they might not expand upon a question the way you want them to unless you guide them. By asking them specific and open-ended questions, you can solicit unique and informative answers – and a lot of times you might even catch a reference off-guard! That could be a good thing, because the answer you receive will more honest and authentic than an answer they had already rehearsed in their minds.

Questions to help you manage this person better

At their best, reference checks can also help you be a better manager to your incoming hire. This can help you ease their transition into a role and help you retain them for the long haul. 

Talking to people that have previously managed or worked with your candidate can provide great insight into their working style and the type of management that allows them to perform at their best. 

Asking these kinds of questions can help: 

  • Is there anything you observed during your time managing this candidate that I should know about? 
  • What can you tell me about their working relationships with peers? 
  • What type of work environment do they work best in? 
  • What advice can you give me about how I can best manage or support them? 

We especially like the last question because it’s mutually beneficial – it allows you to benefit from the deep knowledge of someone who has managed them before, but it also puts you in a position to know how to best support your new hire before they’ve even started. It’s win-win.

Final tips for conducting reference checks 

Reference checks are an important part of a great hiring process. We know it can be tempting to skip them if you want to make a hire quickly, but taking the time to ask the right questions could help set your new hire up for success right away. 

Make your reference check process consistent across the board for all hires. Ask candidates to provide two to three references and let them know that you will be reaching out to them. 

Consider using a reference check question scorecard for each candidate so that you can fairly evaluate the answers you receive. An applicant tracking system like CareerPlug makes it easy to save and use question scorecards for every candidate, allowing you to check every candidate’s references faster and more thoroughly. 

When you’re excited about a candidate, reference checks can be a great opportunity to get some final confirmation that you’re making the right decision. They can help you be the type of manager your incoming hire needs, ultimately improving both your hiring and retention. 

Need help hiring the right person? Yeah, we can automate that.

CareerPlug automates all the steps of a hiring process from candidate evaluation to interview scheduling to reference checks so you can spend more time running your business. Take a look inside our software today.


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