6 questions to ask when checking references (plus templates!)

Last updated:
July 13, 2021
November 24, 2022
min read
Bev Campling
checking references
Table of contents

Many hiring managers place limited emphasis on reference checks because they believe they lead to unnecessary delays. In such a fast-moving world, it’s no wonder. But, while we can get away with that kind of approach for a while, it’s bound to come back and bite us in the long run.

The reality is, reference checks should become a vital step in the hiring process if you want to prevent potentially negative consequences in the future.

Without the proper checks, you could end up with an employee who lacks the experience you need or who has personal traits that you don’t want.

Worse still, you could end up with a poor quality hire that could see you have to start the whole hiring process all over again.  Of course, not every candidate is trying to hide something or con their way to a job offer.

However, statistics show that eight out of ten employers experience resume fraud, so reference checks should be taken very seriously.

But, there’s very little information out there about questions to ask when checking references. So, here at Recruitee, we’ve made it simple for you. This post will break down the 6 questions you should ask when checking references, making sure you hire suitable candidates with no hidden agenda.

But first:

What is a reference check?

Often, those who apply for roles are asked to provide references that are then contacted. This is what is meant by ‘reference check.’

A reference check is a method used by recruiters, managers, and hirers. Ultimately, a candidate’s previous employers or authoritative figures in education are contacted with questions about the candidate’s experience, attitude, and general working outlook.

Purpose of reference checks

Reference checks are beneficial and give a hirer a broader insight into individual candidates.

The purpose of a reference check is to explore and understand a candidate’s experience within a working environment.

It also verifies the candidate’s information on their application form, solidifying that they were honest about their experience and skills.

Further still, reference checks – when you ask the right questions – allow you to spot any behavioral patterns with a specific candidate.

In a nutshell, reference checks validate a candidate’s application and help the hirer weigh up whether they are the right fit for the job, based on past experience in the working or educational world.

The importance of reference checks

Do reference checks matter?

Yes. Yes, they do.

Reference checks are vital when recruiting because it gives the hirer a clearer image of the candidates. Before someone works with or for you, you’ll be given access to their application, where they’ll try to convey a particular persona.

Sometimes, a candidate’s application can be powerful, but they feel out of their depth after a few weeks in the role, or their work ethic is nothing like they described. However, if the hirer had done their due diligence and did their reference checks, they would have been able to preempt this, avoiding difficulties early on and down the line.

Reference checks are just as necessary as reading and evaluating the application. Remember that they will try to portray the very best version of themselves when applying for a role. A reference check will validate and assure you that the application is built on honesty and sincerity and gives you an insight into their working behavior.

What would happen if hirers didn't do reference checks?

We’re all inclined to go by gut feel, even when there’s information available that contradicts what we perceive. It’s is part of our existence, and in every situation, we’re actively processing and assessing information from our surroundings and coming to conclusions.

Perception is a subconscious process, and individually, or as a team, we can be unaware of its magnitude in crucial business decisions. It doesn’t take much for perception to take hold and gain momentum. If this momentum gains traction (which it can easily do), we can quickly see it as the reality.

When we go on gut feel in interviews, we make snap evaluations that result in spontaneous judgment calls, positive or negative, that we don’t try to clarify. For the most part, we’re unaware of this thought process, and we begin to believe and trust our judgments without recognizing any bias.

Unfortunately, our gut feel is often wrong!

Making crucial decisions in business based on perceived information only isn’t just bad for business, it can also do severe damage. Many companies suffer financial loss, brand damage or lose opportunities because decisions were made based on perception, despite their being contrary factual information available to forewarn them.

When it comes to hiring, the searchlight that reaches beyond perception is reference checks.

One bad apple spoils the bunch

No role should be exempt from reference checks, from entry-level employees to executives. Every employee who’s been employed through misrepresentation is bound to cause some issues in the long run, from negligible to disastrous.

Even if their dishonesty is never found out, the employer will pay the price one way or another because deceit has a knock-on effect. For example, employees who claim to have skills-gap-analysis/" target="_blank" rel="noopener follow noreferrer" data-wpel-link="internal">skills or qualifications they don’t have will work slower, lean heavily on their peers, and affect their entire department. In addition, people who’ve previously been guilty of any kind of theft from past employers are likely to try again because past behavior predicts future behavior. And no matter the size or reputation of your company, top executives can cause brand damage that can be difficult to salvage.

Collecting thorough references from hiring managers can spare hiring managers the misery of trying to undo the damage caused by an oversight during the hiring process.

The rules of reference checks

Reference checks aren’t about ticking off ‘yes’ ‘no’ answers from a list; if you do that, you might as well skip them. Doing reference calls well is about planning and digging in to get to know more about the candidate and the resume they’ve given you.

It’s always best to advise applicants upfront that reference checks and qualification verifications will be done on all shortlisted candidates; that way you ward off any chancers and time wasters.

Ask all selected candidates to provide a list of past managers or supervisors before you begin with interviews. Then, a quick check on social media sites like LinkedIn should confirm if the reference supplied is or was an employee of the same company as the candidate. If you can’t verify the connection, make a brief call to the company reception where they both worked together and ask if the reference does or did work there and in what capacity.

Although this might seem like time-wasting, it isn’t! Many people will try to give a work colleague, or even a friend, in the hope of getting away with a setup reference check. By checking this out, you’re actually saving a lot of time that could be wasted on interviews if the candidate is dishonest.

Once you’ve confirmed that the candidate has given valid references, you can continue with the interview process. But before making any job offers, dive into the references on all shortlisted candidates who have fared well during interviews to ensure that you keep your process fair and transparent.

What questions can you legally ask when checking references?

When you’re checking references, some questions will give you a massive advantage, providing vital insight into your candidate’s working attitude and experience. However, there are also some questions that shouldn’t be asked. In fact, they’re illegal! So, let’s consider the questions you can ask before diving into questions that shouldn’t make an appearance in your reference check process.

The main rule? To oblige by all the legalities, you must keep your questions focused on the role. The questions should revolve around the job, rather than their race, religion, sexuality, personal preferences, or habits. They’re irrelevant at the end of the day.

So, here are 6 questions you can and should ask when checking references.

6 questions to ask when checking references

“What dates did the candidate work at your company?”

This question validates honesty and is telling. The length of time working for a previous employer can piece together a narrative. If, for example, they’ve been working there for only 2 months, and the previous employer says the same, that’s something you’ll want to address.

On the other hand, if the candidate has worked there for a long time, that may probe other thoughts, too.

“Would you rehire this person?”

This is an excellent question because it tells you exactly what you need to know. These short yes/no questions (closed questions) can tell you just as much as open questions. That said, they demand elaboration. So while the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ begins the response, you can then ask them for a reason why for more profound insight.

“Would you describe the candidate as reliable and dependable? What makes you think so?”

Regardless of the role at hand, reliability and dependability are crucial traits to display. By adding a second question asking for elaboration, you’ll likely be given some examples of times where the candidate did or did not show these traits, demisting your understanding of them.

“What would you say are the individual’s greatest strengths and weaknesses?”

This has likely been asked directly to the candidate during the interview process. When collecting references, the best thing about this question is comparing them to the candidate’s answers. It also gives you a clearer idea from a hiring manager’s point of view of the candidate and what they can offer your company.

Perhaps the candidate’s greatest strength is precisely what your company needs. But, equally, perhaps the most significant weakness is too much of a gamble. Either way, you’re given the insight you need to make a decision.

“What skills would the candidate need to strengthen for them to reach their fullest potential?”

This is an excellent question because it reveals many qualities. First, you’re given the direct answer to the skills they lack. However, you’re also able to determine whether this is a skill that is crucial for the role at hand. Furthermore, you’re given insight into the candidate’s ‘fullest potential,’ and you’re able to envision how they could transform your organization.

“When working with you, what was the individual’s biggest accomplishment?”

Of course, this highlights the good and ignores the bad. But that’s fine. So long as you’re asking a range of other telling questions, this one is golden.

This question will show you what your candidate’s most outstanding achievement was within the workplace. For example, suppose you’ve asked for two references, and they span over a broader range of time. In that case, you’ll gain a pretty solid indication of the candidate’s professional growth if there’s a massive change between references in a short amount of time - even better!

3 questions you should not ever ask when checking references

As we said previously, the primary tick box is simple: keep it related to the role at hand. It should all revolve around the work-persona, rather than direct anything personal.

Follow this rule, and you’ll be fine. But, just to make sure, here are 3 questions you should never ask when checking references (and the reasons why.)

“Does the candidate have any children? Are they planning on having more children?”

This is not just frowned upon. It’s actually illegal to ask about a candidate’s relationship status before hiring them. That includes whether they’re married, divorced, single, and whether they have (or they’re planning to have) children.

Adding to that, it’s also illegal to ask about childcare arrangements. The best way to avoid any illegalities, in this case, is to steer clear from questions about family and personal relationships - specifically those surrounding children.

“Is the candidate religious? What is their religion?”

Think about it this way: does the candidate’s religion impact their ability to work in the role? No. No, it doesn’t. So, should it be asked? Also no.

Again, this is illegal. You shouldn’t ask any questions about religion, religious holidays, or their church habits and leaders.

You can, however, ask about the candidate’s availability and possible clashes with the working hours the role advertises.

“How old is the applicant?”

Seems pretty harmless, right? Wrong.

Asking a direct question about age falls under the category of ‘not-related’ when it comes to the working world. You don’t want to show age discrimination in any way.

If, however, age plays an essential factor in the role – say the position requires managing or working with alcohol and thus you need a candidate of a certain age – you could ask, ‘would the candidate be able to provide proof of age?’

Following our ‘is it relevant?’ rule, this example demands a specific age limit by the nature of the role. You’ll still want to avoid asking upfront, direct questions about age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, and other personal demographics, though.

Should I ask for references on the phone or in writing?

You can speak to references and make notes as you go, but getting confirmed reference checks in writing is the best way to do it for any number of reasons.

Firstly, it makes you come across as genuine and more professional to the reference. Second, people are skeptical of giving verbal references for fear of misinterpretation, or they’re just dismissive; either way – you lose out!

Call the reference, introduce yourself, briefly explain why you’re calling, and ask if you can email a short list of questions. Then, request an urgent reply because you have to decide pretty soon to who you’re going to make the job offer. In most cases, this works well because few references want to think that they cost a former employee an opportunity.

Keep your questions brief but pertinent, encouraging the referee to elaborate a little more. Depending on the role, be sure to confirm that the candidate has the depth of knowledge and experience you require.

Another core reason why written references are best is that nothing’s left out. For example, when speaking to someone, we might unintentionally forget to ask something, or they could hurry us along, causing us to end the call sooner than intended. By asking for the candidate reference in writing, you’re sure to cover all bases, and no one can come back later and dispute anything.

A written reference is also quick and easy to share with other team members, especially if you’re using a collaborative hiring structure and an ATS. Remember, well-prepared reference checks offer factual information that can eliminate hiring on perception.

Email template for reference checks

If you’re drafting an email to someone who works at another company, asking for a reference for your potential new employee, it can feel daunting.

You want to convey a sense of warmth, gratitude, and professionalism. And sometimes, the pressure can be a little overwhelming.

So, here at Recruitee, we’ve created an email template for reference checks. Feel free to copy and paste it over into a document, and save it for the next time you need to email someone for reference checks.

PS: Feel free to also replace the questions with more role-specific ones, too.

Subject Line: Could you provide a reference for {candidate’s name}?

Good morning/good afternoon {referee name},

My name is {your name} and I’m a {job title} at {organization name}.

I’m currently taking applications for the role of {role title}, and your former employee {candidate’s name} has made it to the last stage of the hiring process.

The hiring team and I are impressed with {candidate’s name}’s application and interview, and we’d love to get a clearer picture of whether they would excel at {organization name}.

I’m reaching out to you because {candidate’s name} mentioned that you were their {manager/director etc.} and they were happy with me contacting you.

I’d be very grateful if we could {hop on a quick phone call/arrange a time to talk} so I could ask you some questions about {candidate’s name}’s experience at {reference’s organization}.

Please let me know what time works for you. Would you also mind confirming that the number {candidate’s name} gave me for you is up to date and accurate?

I have {reference’s phone number}.

Thank you so much in advance for your time.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon,

{Your name}

{Your role}

{Your organization}

Reference check questions template

The most time-consuming way to conduct references is by having a solid reference check questions template. So, again, we’ve made it easy for you and created a list of all the questions you may want to ask.

You should save these questions as ‘REFERENCE CHECKS QUESTIONS – MOTHERBOARD.’ You could then create multiple documents from this list for various teams or roles within your company.

Questions to ask peers and co-workers when checking references

  1. What’s your relationship with the candidate?
  2. Can you confirm the applicant’s job title while working with you?
  3. Can you describe the applicant’s role when they worked with you?
  4. Did the candidate work as part of a team? Or did they thrive when working by themselves?
  5. When working with you, what would you say was the applicant’s most successful achievement?
  6. Was the candidate promoted at any stage during their employment at your company?
  7. What do you think makes the candidate a good fit for the role of {role title here}?
  8. What was it like to work with the candidate?
  9. Did the candidate ever manage or supervise somebody? How did it go?
  10. How did the candidate respond to constructive criticism, stress, or pressure?

Questions to ask managers when checking references

  1. Why did the candidate leave your organization? (Or why are they going?)
  2. What were the candidate’s duties and responsibilities when working at your organization?
  3. Did you observe, audit, or evaluate the candidate’s performance when working with you? What did you note as their biggest strengths and areas of necessary improvement?
  4. Would you rehire the candidate? Why/why not?
  5. What skills do you believe the candidate has that make them a good fit for the role?
  6. What made you decide to hire the candidate when they first applied?
  7. What environment do you think the candidate needs to thrive in? (Please describe the dynamics of the team, culture, and management.)
  8. Which areas of performance would you have liked the candidate to strengthen when working with you?
  9. What was the candidate’s most significant achievement when working for you?
  10. In your opinion, what can we do to help the candidate reach their full potential?

Questions to ask subordinates when checking references

  1. How do you feel the candidate managed you?
  2. What are some strengths and weaknesses of the candidate’s leadership style?
  3. Did you feel supported when working with the candidate?
  4. How did the candidate promote your wellbeing when they managed you?
  5. Would you choose to work for the candidate again?
  6. Did the candidate articulate your responsibilities effectively? Were you sure about what you needed to do to reach your fullest potential?  
  7. What was something you’d like to see the candidate improve on to be a better manager or leader?
  8. Can you think of a time when the candidate supported you and helped you solve a problem?
  9. How did the candidate respond to pressure or stress?
  10. Did you feel valued and respected when working for the candidate? Can you think of a time to support your answer?

Questions to ask for personal references

  1. What is your relationship with the candidate?
  2. Have you ever worked professionally with the candidate? If so, how did you find it?
  3. What would you say are the most vital traits or skills the candidate has for this particular role?
  4. In your own personal experience, how would you describe the candidate’s reaction to pressure and stress? For example, how do they manage deadlines?
  5. Would you trust the candidate with money/children/confidential information? Why/why not?
  6. How does the candidate cope when working or interacting in a group or team?
  7. Why do you believe the candidate is suitable for this role?
  8. Would you describe the candidate as ‘reliable’ and ‘dependable’? Can you think of a time where they showed these traits?
  9. If you were a hiring manager yourself, would you hire the candidate? Why/why not?
  10. In your personal opinion, what do you think we need to do as an organization to help the candidate reach their fullest potential?

Telephone reference check form

If email’s not your style and you’d prefer to speak to the referees directly via telephone, you should have a solid telephone reference check form to take notes during the conversation.

Again, we’ve made life easier for you. There’s no need to spend hours creating a telephone reference check form from scratch. Instead, simply copy and paste our template into a document. Remember, you can adjust or edit the questions to suit the role.

To show you how it works, we’ve filled it in with italics. Remember to erase it when using it for your telephone reference checks.

Telephone reference check template

Admin and Contact Details

Date: October 10th, 2020

Candidate Name: John Doe

Role applying for: Finance analyst

Name of reference: Martin Smith

Reference’s job title: Finance Manager

Company: 123 Numbers

Email: martinsmith@123numbers.com

Telephone: 555-555-5

Reference checked by: Lisa Howell

Questions and Notes

When working for you, what was the applicant’s job title?

Junior finance analyst

When did they start working for you? (and when did they leave - if applicable)

Started in Jan 2016, left in April 2019.

What would you say are the candidate’s most vital traits or qualities within a professional environment?

Numeric skills, Excel skills, dependable, strong attention to detail.

Which areas of performance would you have liked the candidate to strengthen when working with you?

Working as part of a team, evolving to manager.

Would you rehire the candidate? Why/why not?

Yes - efficient, hard-working, dedicated, and learned a lot in the time working at the company.

Why do candidates lie on their resumes?

Not everyone who lies on their resume is inherently evil or even a wrong candidate!

People who lie on their resumes are focused on getting what they want. And their desire to get what they want is greater than their fear of being exposed as a liar or a fraud.

People may be driven by a degree of naiveté (particularly first-time jobseekers), desperation, ego or believe that they can outsmart anyone. Whatever their reason, people who lie on their resume are inclined to making risky decisions. That’s also most likely is a thread that runs throughout their personality rather than being isolated to job hunting.

Unfortunately, without doing thorough reference checks, you too are making risky decisions based on your perceptions of a candidate rather than on factual information.

Recruitee supports collaborative hiring with a transparent and user-friendly platform designed for an unlimited number of users on all plans. That means that you can share verbatim post-interview references checks instantly with all team members at a single click, allowing you to speed up your hiring decisions with improved accuracy.

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