12 reference check questions to ask (plus templates!)

Last updated:
June 10, 2024
June 21, 2024
min read
Brendan McConnell
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. But, the reality is that as many as 64% of surveyed employees have admitted to lying about skills, experience, or references at least once in their careers. Small exaggerations may not be a big deal, but major discrepancies can cause serious problems if an unqualified candidate is hired based on a falsified resume.

This article will share a list of effective reference check questions you should be asking listed references. We’ve also included a few helpful outreach templates to help you contact references by phone or email. 

Let’s dig in! 

What is a reference check?

A reference check is a tactic used in the hiring process to contact previous employers, supervisors, schools, and other contacts to verify key pieces of information listed on a resume. 

Reference checks can be used to confirm education attainment, employment at specific companies, roles and responsibilities, and can help give recruiters a window into how a candidate is likely to perform and act in a role. 

Purpose of reference checks 

Reference checks give recruiters and hiring managers additional insights into individual candidates under consideration. 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.

Reference checks may be performed: 

  • After an interview. Employers often conduct reference checks after a candidate has successfully passed the interview stage to ensure they are a trustworthy and competent choice.
  • Before job finalization: Employers conduct reference checks right before making a final job offer to confirm the candidate's qualifications and suitability for the position.
  • For jobs with high turnover rates: In positions with historically high turnover, employers might perform reference checks to understand the candidate's previous job stability and reasons for leaving.
  • For sensitive positions. For roles involving sensitive information, vulnerable demographics, or a high degree of responsibility, reference checks may be used to verify trustworthiness and integrity.

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.

This is why, according to SHRM research, 92% of employers opt to conduct reference checks as part of their recruitment process, with the goal of improving the quality of hire.

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.

While reference checks may be common practice amongst hirers, there are some important ethical and legal considerations to keep in mind.

This include: 

  • Employers must obtain written consent from the candidate before contacting reference, in compliance with various privacy laws.
  • Reference check questions should be strictly job-related, and must not delve into the candidates personal life, or private information like marital status, religion, or political affiliation
  • It’s illegal to ask about age, rage, disability, national origin or other protected characteristics during reference checks 
  • Employers should consistent conduct reference checks for all candidates within the same job category to avoid claims of discrimination
  • Employers should keep detailed notes on the information provided during reference checks for record-keeping and compliance purposes.
  • Information obtained from reference checks should be kept confidential and shared only with those directly involved in the hiring decision.

It’s always a good idea to review local and national employment laws in your areas of operation to ensure that you’ll fully comply with all regulations related to reference and background checks. 

Types of reference check questions to ask

When building out your list of reference check questions, it’s helpful to start with high level topics you’d like to address. 

Common types of reference check questions include: 

  • Work performance. Questions that focus on the candidate's skills, achievements, job responsibilities, quality of work, and ability to meet deadlines.
  • Work ethic and reliability. Questions that aim to gauge the candidate's dedication, punctuality, consistency in performance, and overall reliability.
  • Interpersonal skills and teamworks. These questions seek to understand how the candidate interacts with colleagues, manages conflicts, and contributes to team dynamics.
  • Leadership and management skills.  For candidates applying for managerial or leadership roles, questions may revolve around their ability to lead, motivate teams, and manage projects or crises.
  • Adaptability and problem-solving. This category covers the candidate's ability to handle change, think critically, and solve problems effectively under pressure.

This list isn’t necessarily exhaustive. Add or subtract topics and general lines of questioning as you see fit, and depending on the roles you’re filling.

6 questions to ask when checking references

Once you have your general topics to cover, next up is creating a list of specific reference check  questions to ask. Here are some inspirations. 

“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!

“How does this person handle feedback? Particularly constructive criticism.” 

This question is crucial for understanding the candidate’s ability to engage with constructive feedback and their willingness to grow professionally. A reference's response can reveal the candidate's resilience and capacity to adapt, which are vital traits in any dynamic work environment.

“Can you provide an example of a conflict that the candidate faced in the workplace, and how they managed it?” 

The answer to this question will give you insights into the interpersonal skills and conflict resolution abilities of the candidate. It helps gauge their emotional intelligence and ability to maintain professionalism under stress, which is particularly important for roles requiring teamwork and collaboration.

“In what ways has this person demonstrated leadership skills, even if they weren’t in a leadership role?” 

This question seeks to uncover instances where the candidate may have naturally taken the lead or shown initiative. It’s useful for identifying potential leadership qualities and the ability to assume responsibility beyond their formal role.

“How well does the candidate work under pressure or tight deadlines?” 

Stress tolerance is a critical attribute in many fast-paced or high-stakes roles. This question helps you understand how the candidate manages time-sensitive tasks and whether they can maintain performance quality when the pressure mounts.

“What types of projects or tasks does this person excel at? Where do they make their biggest impact?” 

Aimed at identifying the candidate's specific areas of strength, this question can also help match the candidate’s skills with the job requirements. It offers a practical insight into where they might best contribute within your organization.

“What role does this person usually take in team settings?” 

This question sheds light on the candidate’s ability to function within a team setting. Understanding their typical role—whether as a leader, facilitator, or supporter—can indicate how they will integrate with or enhance existing team dynamics.

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.

How to conduct a reference check: process summary

Before we close out the article, we wanted to share a quick checklist that outlines the process for conducting reference checks. 

Here are the key steps in planning, executing, and acting on reference checks.

  • Get candidate consent. Before initiating any reference checks, ensure you have written consent from the candidate to contact their listed references.
  • Prepare your questions. Based on the job requirements and the candidate’s background, prepare a list of specific questions that align with the essential competencies and skills for the position.
  • Verify the reference’s details. Confirm the contact details and current position of the reference to ensure they are the correct and most relevant person to provide information about the candidate.
  • Schedule the reference check. Contact the reference to schedule a convenient time for the discussion, respecting their availability and preference for communication (phone, email, etc.).
  • Conduct the reference check interview. During the call or meeting, introduce yourself, explain the purpose of the check, and proceed with your prepared questions, noting down key insights and observations.
  • Ask for additional references. If necessary, ask the current reference if they can recommend other colleagues or supervisors who can also provide insights about the candidate.
  • Evaluate the answers. After completing all reference checks, review the gathered information to assess the candidate's suitability for the role based on factual data and subjective feedback.
  • Document and store the feedback. Organize and securely store the feedback received in compliance with data protection regulations, keeping detailed records for future reference if needed.

Ideally, this process should be fairly standardized for all reference checks, and be a key component of your overall hiring process. Adapt the specific questions you ask, and the number of references you approach depending on the role. 

Reference check templates

As promised, here are two templates to help you with conducting your reference checks. Enjoy! 

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 Tellent, 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}

Telephone reference check template 

If email isn't 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.

Admin and Contact Details

Date: XYZ

Candidate Name: John Smith

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.

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