Reference checks: 10 questions you need to be asking

Reference checks: 10 questions you need to be asking

Picking up the phone to speak with a former employer for verbal reference checks will offer tremendously useful insights that can make or break the hiring decision. These answers could highlight whether the candidate has good problem-solving skills or would fit into your work culture.

Checking references and considering other third-party observations are useful and necessary components of the hiring process. But getting a candid reference from an employer is tougher than ever these days. Because employers know that saying too much or too little can have legal consequences, they are increasingly wary of being specific about past employees and their work histories when you try to check references.

How to structure your reference checks

Begin with a few basic questions about the candidate’s employment history. Any reference checks should start easy and progress to more in-depth questions.

Kick start the reference check call with a few basic questions like:

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1. How long did the candidate work for your organisation?

2. What did the candidate’s role involve?

3. What remuneration did the candidate receive in terms of salary, bonus and overtime payments or other incentives?

4. Can you recall where the candidate worked prior to joining your business?

Now move on to more complex reference checks. The questions you need to pose are tough but the responses will give you greater insights about the candidate:

5. How does the candidate compare to the person doing the job now? Be prepared to tease out further information if the referee offers simple ‘better’ or ‘worse’ responses.

6. What would you say are some of the candidate’s weaknesses and strengths?

7. In a typical month, how often was the candidate absent from work?

8. Where there any sorts of people the candidate struggled to work with?

9. Was the candidate prepared to take additional steps to complete urgent tasks?

10. Would you rehire the candidate in the future?

Tips for reference checks

Here are some tips on approaching the often difficult process of checking references:

  • Let the candidate know you're conducting reference checks. Be clear with candidates at the outset that your company will be checking their references. Checking references is perfectly legal as long as the information being verified is job-related and does not violate discrimination laws. Informing applicants that you're checking references usually helps ensure that the answers they give you during the interview are truthful.
  • Don't delegate it. If the employee will report directly to you, you should perform the job reference check. No matter how thorough a delegate or deputy may be, the hiring manager will have corollary questions that may not occur to others. Also, calling someone at your same level may establish greater camaraderie that will prompt a more honest and detailed reference. If that weren't enough, checking references yourself is a great way to gain insight from a former supervisor on how to best manage the individual.
  • Use responses from the interview. Asking candidates during the job interview what their former employers are likely to say about them can provide you with a good starting point if you can actually get the former employer to talk openly. You can start out by saying something such as, "Andrew tells me that you think he was an awesome employee," and have the employer take it from there. You may not get a totally frank answer, but you can get valuable comments and insights. After all, the candidate must assume that you're going to check out the answers.

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Reference checks can give greater clarity behind a candidate

Hiring the right employee involves taking the time to identify which candidates is not only best for the job, but who will also fit well into the office culture. 

In a time-poor workplace, you may be rushed for time – or be distracted as the reference check call progresses. To glean the most information from a referee, be sure to have our list of reference check questions on hand to remain focused.

These reference checks are an important starting point and a guideline for you to work from. As you progress through the conversation you are likely to have other questions to ask but this list will help you stay on track.

The key point is that the more information you have, the better you are positioned to decide whether the candidate is right for your team.

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