A reference check is when a hiring manager reaches out to a candidate's references to gain insight into their qualifications for the position to which they've applied. In many organizations, reference checks are the final step before hiring, and take place after the candidate accepts an offer.
When conducted thoughtfully and intentionally, reference checks can also help verify a candidate's employment history and educational background, and even help hiring managers imagine the candidate in the role.
It's important, then, for candidates to provide references that are honest, reliable and able to emphasize the skills and talents they'll need to land the position. It's equally as important for hiring managers to know what to ask in order to get the information they need to make an informed decision.
To ease the process, we've laid out some best practices for completing a strong reference check below, as well as the 12 best questions to ask.
3 best practices for strong reference checks.
Get consent from the candidate, first.
Ask the candidate if you may contact their references, and if those references are expecting you to do so. That gives those who are expecting the call time to think of their answers, so they can provide the most valuable responses in return.
Provide context to the position on the call.
Start the call with an overview of the company and a summary of the job description before asking questions. This allows references to offer insight that is not highlighted on the candidate's resume or cover letter based on their work ethic or general interests. A reference's enthusiasm (or lack thereof) can also help you gauge a candidate's interest in the role.
Don't backchannel reference.
It's not a recommended practice to reach out to people who've worked with the candidate but are not listed as a reference, no matter how tempting it may be. Unlike professional references who can speak to a candidate's skills and interests, outside sources may provide information that is biased, inappropriate or generally unhelpful to moving the hiring decision forward.
12 questions to ask when checking references.
1. How do you know the job candidate?
You generally want to start with this question — or a variation of it — so you can gain context on the angle you're going to receive information from, whether it be from a school setting, a work environment or a personal capacity.
2. Can you tell me about how you and the candidate worked together?
Answers will differ amongst professors, managers and colleagues, so having a wide range of intel will paint a fuller picture of the candidate's potential and how they might perform in different roles.
3. What would you say are the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses?
Just as you would ask a candidate this question, asking a reference about someone's strengths and weaknesses will offer a unique perspective (and maybe even different answer) for both.
4. How would you describe the candidate's performance under pressure?
This question's especially important because you can learn about a candidate's organizational skills, dependability and how well they work (with others) under pressure and tight deadlines.
5. How would you describe the candidate's communication and listening skills?
How little or how much a candidate speaks, plus how deeply they listen and respond is a great indicator of how well they'll perform in certain roles. A candidate who's a great communicator may also be a great manager, whereas a candidate who isn't a good listener is probably not suited for a counseling role.
6. Can you recall one of the candidate’s most memorable accomplishments while working with you?
The answer to this question will be completely unique, because it asks the reference to recall a time when the candidate went above and beyond at work. And it may surprise you — the character trait highlighted in the memory may be one that demonstrates the candidate's interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence or perseverance, among many other things.
7. What type of work environment could you imagine the candidate thriving in, and why?
Some people thrive while working under pressure in fast-paced environments; others find success in environments that allow them to plan ahead. A reference would be able to tell you what ways their mutual environment did or did not serve the candidate, helping you better understand their work cadence and style.
8. What skills do you think the candidate still needs to improve in order to reach their full potential?
It's just as important to know a candidate's weaknesses as it is to know their strengths because everyone — even seasoned veterans — have some room for improvement. In making the ask, you'll find out the professional needs of the candidate and whether or not the position will allow them to build those skills.
9. If the opportunity presented itself, would you re-hire this job candidate, and why?
Now, here's a question that helps you find exactly what you're looking for. In essence, you're asking the reference, "Why should we hire this candidate?" and "Would they make a valuable addition to a team?"
10. What leadership style do you think pairs best with the job candidate?
Followed by, "What advice would you give me for managing them effectively?" There are several leadership styles, so you want to make sure that if you decide to move forward with this person, your style is the most conducive to their success. If it isn't —but they'd still make a great addition to the team — then it's good to know, in advance, how you can start revising your approach.
11. Who else can I speak to about the candidate that can provide further insight?
Ask this question if you want to widen your scope and help inform your hiring decision. And if you do, remember to get the candidate's consent before reaching out.
12. Did the candidate receive any awards or promotions during their time with the company?
One way to see how far a candidate's grown professionally is to inquire about their promotions. A candidate who's been promoted is one who exceeded goals and expectations, and you want someone this driven on your team.
How do you check references?
- Ask the candidate for their permission to contact their references.
- Email to their reference(s) to set up a time to call, and include in the email a quick introduction of who you are, your company's mission and an overview of the role.
- Know what questions you're going to ask beforehand.
- Call the reference and keep the check under 20 minutes (15 is a sweet-spot!)
- Take notes on the call so you can refer to them later.
- Compare those notes side-by-side with notes from other references or candidate's references, depending on your reason for the call.
Is a reference check a good sign?
The reason for a reference check depends greatly on the circumstance. A hiring manager may ask to complete a reference check because they're trying to decide between you and another qualified candidate, they may have more questions to ask that weren't covered in an initial interview or they simply want to learn more about you from someone's who already worked with you.