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Best Questions to Ask References

best questions to ask references

Found a few ideal candidates that look perfect for the job?

Are you stuck on which applicant will complement the team best?

Receiving a good reference could help you come to your final decision.

Candidates may have already provided at least three references on their resumes; if they haven’t, make sure to chase them up about this. If someone receives three excellent references and another candidate receives three good references, it may make it easier to pick the perfect candidate for the role!

But, if you’re not sure which are the Best Questions to Ask References when picking the most suitable candidate, then it’s time to find out…

best question to ask reference

What Is A Reference?

During the employment process, a reference check is a method of confirming information about an applicant. You can check references over the phone or by email. The phone is the preferred option, but I’ll touch on that later.

References help a company make a more educated recruiting decision before issuing an offer. This is because a reference can answer inquiries about your candidates’ job history, talents, abilities, and work style.

When Should You Conduct A Reference Check?

This should be done before offering anyone the job once you’ve identified the top two or three candidates through resume screens and initial interviews. If references confirm a candidate’s abilities, experience, and competence, do a follow-up interview armed with this information.

Why References Are Important?

References really can make a candidate stand out from the crowd or put you off employing someone. You don’t need to check every reference for all of the candidates you will be interviewing; wait until you have conducted your interviews.

Once you have whittled it down to a few employees, you can look into their previous employer’s references. Here’s why they are so important…

1 Look for warning indicators and red flags concerning previous behavior.

2 Ensure that employment history information, such as dates of employment, job duties, and job title, are correct.

3 Speak with former managers to confirm facts and skillsets.

4 Examine how the candidate interacts with coworkers and responds to supervisory directives.

5 Investigate the candidate’s work ethic, work style, dependability, attitude, and communication abilities.

What Should Happen During a Reference Check?

The hiring manager will confirm the information in the candidate’s CV with a reference check. They could also delve a little deeper into the employer’s relationship with the candidate by inquiring about the following:


Was the employee on time for work, and did they attend all meetings and or other important engagements during their employment. It could be a major deal-breaker for employers who want staff to be punctual and complete their tasks on time.

Company Contributions

Did the employee do anything that stood out during their previous employment? What were the positive achievements and tasks the employee completed that a previous manager may want to highlight?

the question to ask reference

Skill Set

Asking for a reference, you should delve into your possible candidate’s skill set. Do they possess any specific skills useful in the role they have applied for?

Behavior and Attitude

Was the employee a team player, and did they work well with others in the office? This is another important question as most companies want people who will fit in with their current staff and not cause any problems.

How To Conduct A Reference Check?

As the hiring manager or interviewer, it is crucial that you conduct the references checks yourself. After all, you have met the potential candidates and know them personally. Asking the questions will be easier as you can link them back to their interview answers and check if they were being honest!

1 When calling references, introduce yourself, the company you work for, and the individual who has provided the reference.

2 Check to see if it’s a good time for a quick conversation or if you should call back at a later time.

3 Make it clear to the reference that all responses will be kept private.

4 Verify the employment dates, knowledge base, and skillsets.

5 Describe the available position that the candidate is looking to fill and ask if they think they’d be a good fit for it.

6 Allow enough time for the reference to respond to each question, and don’t lead them to easy answers; instead, have them respond directly.

Important Things To Follow While Checking References

First off, make sure that you inform your potential candidates that you will be checking their references. Give them the option to review their references or make changes if needed; I’ll touch on why later…

Make sure to conduct reference checks on the phone and always start with simple questions with factual information, such as dates of employment and work history.

Appropriate social presence…

With social media ever-present in our day-to-day lives, checking your candidates’ socials is very important. You can use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. All these are accessible insights into someone’s character and also check if they speak badly about companies or other people.

Inform Candidates

Informing candidates, you will be checking references gives them a heads up and a chance to withdraw any contacts that may not be ideal. For example, if someone has provided a fake reference, you allow them to remove it before you begin.

However, if someone does withdraw a reference for any reason, it could be a potential red flag.

Do it Yourself!

Making the call yourself is super important. As previously mentioned, only you know what you are looking for in an employee. Having chosen three candidates you like, you can cross-check their responses from their interview with the references available.

Don’t go for a tick box, be more thorough and make sure the employee doesn’t clash with your company values and get a better idea if they would fit well within your team.

Take Notes

If you conduct several reference checks on the same candidate, you will want to take notes of the differing candidate reviews. It also gives you time to review the candidates’ three reference responses with each other. Do they point out the same skill set or weaknesses, is one an excellent review and the other just OK?

These are all great opportunities to figure out which candidate is best.

Conduct Reference Checks on the Phone

Calling is more critical than you may think! An email is a fantastic tool, and I’m sure many of us can think of nothing worse than communicating on the phone all day. However, when it comes to references, it is crucial to do them on the phone.

With email, you cannot always get the tone correct, and things can be misinterpreted. Also, it is unlikely a previous employer will write something negative in an email, whereas it is harder to hide their thoughts and feelings on the phone.

Easy Questions

Make sure to ask simple questions first, this not only gets the conversation flowing, but factual questions are easier to answer. Once you begin to ask personal questions, always try to word them positively.

For example, instead of ‘What were the candidate’s weaknesses?’ You could ask, ‘what should a candidate work on to further their career?’.

question to ask reference

Employment Dates

Make sure to check your candidate’s previous employment dates; some people lie on their resumes stating they have been working somewhere for a number of years when it’s actually been a lot shorter time.

Often people do this to make them look more appealing and reliable, so you must find out the exact dates. If they have not been truthful about this, it’s another red flag.

Social Media Accounts

With our lives revolving around social media more and more, it is essential to check an applicant’s accounts. If their social media pages are public, you are entitled to scroll through and look at what content they post.

Social Media can open your eyes to any extreme views or past problems with companies or individuals. After all, you don’t want an employee who badmouths companies or people. This can shed light on their personality as well, both positively and negatively.

Yes or No Questions

Try to steer away from questions that only really need one answer. Close-ended questions are not ideal for reference checking. You want the previous employer to open up about the candidate.

For example, instead of asking ‘did the candidate work well in a team?’ You could say, ‘How did the candidate work with other team members?’


Ensure the conversation will be confidential, and the former employee will have no information about the conversation. It is best to state this at the beginning of the phone calls. Hopefully, it will make the former employee’s manager more comfortable discussing any potential problems or issues they had with the employee.

Fake References

We touched on this earlier, but fake references are more common than you think! Often with candidates who have less extensive work experience. Therefore they use friends or family to bulk out their reference list.

Not only that, but employees who do have a more significant work history also use this if they know they will receive negative references. You may well be able to spot a fake reference if someone is struggling to stick to a straightforward story with employment dates and general employee information.

What To Ask The Previous Employer?

1 What kind of relationship did they have with the candidate?

2 Has the candidate ever been given an official warning, either verbally or in writing? If so, what’s the reasoning behind it?

3 What was the duration of the candidate’s employment?

4 Do you believe the candidate is qualified for the new position in light of the circumstances?

5 What was the role of the candidate? (Responsibilities, tasks, etc.)

6 What were the candidate’s most unique assets?

7 What was the candidate’s biggest challenge?

8 Have any members of the candidate’s team or clientele ever complained about them? What were the complaints?

9 What is one of the candidate’s best pieces of work?

10 How successfully did the candidate work with their coworkers?

11 What would you say about the candidate’s attitude toward their job and their team?

12 What was the reason for the candidate’s departure from the company?

13 Would you rehire this person if the opportunity arose?

14 Was the candidate regularly late, or did they miss a lot of work due to illness or other reasons?

15 How well did they function under stress?

16 Was there ever a time when they were promoted or demoted?

17 Do you think the candidate can do the work required for this role?

18 Is there anything else you’d like to say about the candidate?

Perhaps You’re Job Hunting?

Your calling card is your resume and needs to stand out from the crowd. So, let’s take a look at my resume writing advice such as How To Write A Letter of Interest, and How To Address A Cover Letter, or what about the Most Important Skills To Put On A Resume, and How To List References On A Resume, or Achievements To List On Your Resume, and don’t forget how to list Job Titles On Resume, or How To List Education On A Resume, as well as my Motivation Letter Writing Guide, and most importantly the Best Times Of Year To Apply For Jobs.

Next, we found these incredible online guides for you! So, check out CVs, Resumes, and LinkedIn: A Guide to Professional English, How to Write an Amazing IT Resume, or perhaps Land Your Dream Job: Join the 2% Who Make it Past Resumé Screening, and Optimize Your Resume: DOs and DON’Ts the SamNova Way, or how about the Resume Formats book, Resume Writing: 10 Ridiculously Simple Tips, and the Resume Format Guide, as well as the English for Academic CVs, Resumes, and Online Profiles, and finally the Marketing Yourself in the Age of Digital: CVs, Applications, Interviews, Social Media, LinkedIn all available online in 2023.

Why not improve your online presence with our Best Linkedin Profile Tips and Best Linkedin Recommendation Examples. Or do a bit of online reading with the LinkedIn Profile Optimization For Dummies, How to Write a KILLER LinkedIn Profile… And 18 Mistakes to Avoid, LinkedIn For Dummies, or even the Ignite Your LinkedIn Profile and LinkedIn Riches: How To Use LinkedIn For Business, Sales and Marketing! books.

If you’re applying for a more professional position, the Expert Resumes and Linkedin Profiles for Managers & Executives is just what you need.

Final Thoughts

Conducting reference checks shouldn’t ever be something that is skimmed over, no matter what kind of company you work for, whether it be retail, hospitality, or the private sector.

References could be the make or break for choosing the perfect candidate for a role. Remember, don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions; after all, you want to employ the right person. Most managers will answer reference calls and be willing to be truthful about their previous employers.

Plus, always remember to conduct reference checks by phone and NOT by email.

All the very best following up on those references!

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