Too many companies don’t check references carefully enough. After an often-exhausting interview process, the reference step is often rushed and becomes just a check mark in a list of onboarding items. Be careful to know your state’s laws about what you can ask and under what circumstances you can do a reference, background or credit check. Check with legal or consult an attorney if you are uncertain.

If you ask the right questions, references provide you with valuable information about a candidate’s work ethic, skills, personality and truthfulness. They can help you verify the information that the candidate has provided on their resume and during the interview.

You likely already know that some people will give wonderful reviews under all circumstances, even if the candidate is not qualified for the job. Others will be more honest but could still be biased in the candidate’s favor. That’s why it’s important to ask the right questions when you’re checking references.

Don’t gloss over this step and don’t do the reference a favor and “make it quick.” Probe as deeply as you can. Our research has shown the 7 questions below can help you verify the truth and learn more about the candidate.

  1. Describe the role you wish to offer the candidate to the reference and ask what skills the candidate possesses that would help them succeed. 

This answer reveals details that can be helpful in your final determination. Hopefully, the skills you hear are the ones you need.

  1. What was your working relationship with the candidate?

If they did not work closely together, the reference will have difficulty answering detailed questions. This could disqualify them as a reference. When you ask candidates for references, ask for co-workers or supervisors that worked directly with the candidate.

  1. While employed at your company, what was the candidate’s top accomplishment? 

This question can reveal overstatements of a candidate’s impact on a project and further reveal skills and attributes.

  1. What are some areas for growth for this candidate? 

This could make the reference uncomfortable because a reference’s tendency is to say good things only. Asking about “areas for growth” frames the question in a positive light and may produce a more honest answer.

  1. What were the candidate’s two top strengths?

If you’re hiring for a role that requires extensive sales, ask for two strengths that make the candidate a successful salesperson. If you’re considering a candidate for a leadership role, ask for two strengths that contribute to their management abilities.

  1. Why did the candidate leave your company?

This question is a great truth verifier. If the reason for leaving is even slightly different than what the candidate told you, it is possible the candidate is not being completely honest…a cause for concern.

If you need more structure for your reference checks, we recommend a

Reference Check Spreadsheet that contains the name of the reference, contact information, a list of questions to make sure you ask all the references the same questions, and a column for notes summarizing the answers.

Happy Hunting!


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