November 13, 2019

Hiring Advice: The Best Questions to Ask References

So you’re in the throes of a hiring campaign and are looking at the wealth of suitable candidates

Many of them may have excellent CVs, sound industry work experience and seem to have the right personality to fit with your team – and culture.

They may have reached your shortlist and now it’s time to check out their backgrounds and make sure everything adds up. Where do you start?

In this article, we are going to explore the kinds of questions you need to pose in a number of hiring situations.

Essential Reference Check Questions

Let’s start with a brief overview of the most important things to ask regarding your employee reference checks.

In hiring a new employee, it’s always wise to obtain references for candidates to ascertain their suitability for the role. It’s also vital to verify a candidate’s work ethic, candor, and adaptability. 

To get to the bottom of this, you should ask references questions like:

  • Can you confirm how long the candidate worked with you?
  • Would you re-hire this person?
  • Why did they leave their past position?
  • What skills do they would bring to the table?

While these questions serve as a great starting point, it’s critical to carefully consider the responsibilities of the role you are trying to hire for and other organization-specific considerations as well.

Group of unrecognizable candidates waiting for a job interview.

11 More great questions to ask on a reference check

While there are many great questions you can ask a reference to help determine a candidates fit for your open position, the following examples should help point you in the right direction:

  1. Could you please confirm [Candidate’s] role within your company, their job title, salary and job functions during their employment with your company
  2. Would you re-hire [Candidate] for the opportunity that arose? And if so, why?
  3. What is your relationship with [Candidate]
  4. How did [Candidate] relate to other team members and their management?
  5. Can you outline the reasons [Candidate] left the role
  6. Is there any particular information you can divulge to enable me to successfully manage [Candidate]?
  7. What attributes do you think [Candidate] has to make them a good fit for the role they’ve applied for?
  8. Can you detail [Candidate’s] strengths and weaknesses
  9. What is it like to work alongside [Candidate]?
  10. Is there any other information you feel is important to know?
  11. Is there anyone else important within this candidate’s team who would be able to provide further insight?

You can ask these questions via a telephone call or via email. 

It’s always a good idea to try to talk directly with the reference contact on the phone if possible, as it will help you pick up on any subtle nuances in the tone of their voice or verbiage that can offer you additional insight. 

If you are able to make telephone contact, make sure you pay particular attention to and make a note of any potential situations they describe, which could potentially be a red flag. Also, make sure you note down exactly who you spoke to and an overview of the discussion. 

"Make sure you pay particular attention to, and make a note of any potential situations they describe, which could potentially be a red flag."

Why is it important to get references from potential employees?

According to experts, a bad hire can cost a company nearly $15,000 if the employee ends up not working out for one reason or another. 

Another startling fact is that a significant 3 in every 4 employers ends up being adversely affected by employing the wrong candidate at some point. 

As these statistics demonstrate, a bad hiring decision could be a very costly mistake. 

Making sure you practice due diligence, interviewing painstakingly, asking all the right questions, and making sure you spend enough time checking out your candidate’s references is the best way to ensure you aren’t making a costly error.

There are many other checks to complete alongside references, which include checking out potential hires social media accounts, conducting traditional background checks, and face to face interviews.

All things considered, a reference check will ultimately be the most efficient way of learning from an outside source about each candidate’s past work history, work ethic and how they perform on the job. 


Older Caucasian woman in denim shirt calling a job candidates references while sitting at a mac laptop

Reference checks play a huge role in deciding whether a candidate would make a good employee. There are a few ways in which they can assist with your hiring process. 

For starters, they give hiring managers the ability to verify specific facts from your potential hires resume, such as confirmation of job roles they held, facts stated in their cover letter, and statements made during their interview. 

With that said, it’s important to note that the words of these references should be taken with a gain of salt.

Because a list of references is put together at the discretion of a candidate, there is a chance that they will attempt to only include names of people who are biased in their favor.

That’s why it’s important to do your own diligence during the reference check process, both by personally vetting each reference on your own end and getting permission from the candidate to find references of your own.

It’s also worth pointing out, that if you are in the same industry as your candidate, and you personally know someone who has worked with or supervised your potential hire in the past, it may be worth asking the candidate if it’s ok to get in touch with them instead of their listed references. 

Speaking with someone you already know, can often bring up better insights into how the potential new employee may act in the workplace.

"A reference check will ultimately be the most efficient way of learning from an outside source about each candidate's past work history, work ethic and how they perform on the job."

Is there anything I can't do or ask In a Reference Check Call?

Now we’ve looked at some of the essential questions you can ask your candidates, let’s take a look at some things not to do when referencing your potential new hires. 

Don’t request any information that could be discriminatory.


It’s important to understand that certain questions simply cannot be asked during the interview process. As a general rule of thumb, you should always stay away from questions that involve:

  • Sexuality
  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Marital Status
  • Any characteristics with no bearing on their ability to perform required duties

Because questioning around the above subjects could lead to a lawsuit, you should make a point of making it very clear to anyone involved in your interview processes from HR through to team managers, that these subjects are totally out of bounds.

"Make sure you understand there are some specific questions that are simply not allowed to be asked during the interview process."

Don't take references without consent.

Although it is legal to seek references outside of those your candidate provides, this must be done with caution.

Before you go about getting finding your own references for a prospect, it’s critical to make sure you get their written consent first.

While a candidate does have the right to refuse this request, reluctance here is often an indicator of a past performance issue they are trying to hide and that should be taken into consideration.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, checking references is a critical part of successful hiring for any organization.

That said, references can be misleading and it’s important to remember that a person should not be wholly definted by their past.

While references are a great starting point for understanding a potential hire, you should also carefully consider their personality, cultural fit, and skills.

Taking all of these factors into consideration in hiring is the best way to ensure you are attracting top talent that can help take your business to the next level.

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Related Categories