It’s high time we talk about one of the unsung heroes of the recruitment process: reference checking. 

Sure, it’s not as glamorous as job offers or as adrenaline-filled as interviews. But it’s like the ketchup to your fries–you might not always think about it, but it makes a world of difference!

So, are you ready to become the Sherlock Holmes of the staffing industry? 

Read on for top reference-checking tips and must-ask questions you should be asking!

What is reference checking & why is reference checking important?

reference checking

Reference checking refers to where a recruiter validates a candidate’s employment history, job performance, skills, and overall suitability for the role by speaking with professional references. Today, a quick social media search has also become a common reference or background check strategy. 

These references are usually previous employers, co-workers, or direct reports that provide a more complete picture of the candidate’s capabilities and work ethic. 

This step usually takes place when a candidate has been considered for hiring or just before the onboarding stage. Essentially, it’s the recruitment version of “trust, but verify,” helping to ensure that a promising candidate is truly as good as they appear on their resume and in the interview.

Just imagine you’re out shopping for a laptop. You found the perfect one. But do you buy it without reading reviews or checking references? You don’t, right? And that’s exactly how crucial reference checking is in recruitment! 

Apart from understanding more about your candidate’s journey, here are some more reasons why you should conduct a reference check for all your potential new hires. 

1. Verifying claims

This is the stage where you verify the promises made on a resume. A candidate may boast about their experience, skills, or qualifications, but only a reference can authenticate these claims. 

A candidate’s previous managers, supervisors, and colleagues are perfect points of contact if you’re in a place where you can’t conduct a candidate assessment

2. Predicting performance

A reference can offer valuable insights into a candidate’s past job performance, which is often a good predictor of their future actions. Knowing how well a candidate handled tasks, managed stress, or achieved targets previously can indicate how they will perform in your organization.

3. Identifying the right cultural fit

Understanding if a candidate will fit well with your company culture is equally crucial. A reference who has worked closely with the candidate can shed light on their values, work style, and interpersonal skills. 

4. Risk mitigation

Reference checking helps to avoid the costs and disruptions of a bad hire. You can save your organization from the headaches and financial strain associated with poor hiring decisions by identifying potential red flags early on, such as recurring issues with colleagues or a history of job hopping.

5. Maintaining & promoting transparency

It promotes a transparent hiring process, demonstrating that the organization values due diligence and fairness. This can enhance the company’s reputation amongst job seekers, making it more attractive to high-quality candidates. 

Now that we’ve established the why let’s explore what you should look for in a reference check.

What information should you ask for in a reference check?

reference checking

1. Role verification

This is the first and most basic piece of information. You must ensure the candidate’s prior role, responsibilities, and tenure align with what they’ve presented to you. 

If the candidate’s CV says “Marketing Director,” but their previous employer says “Marketing Assistant,” you know there’s a mismatch that needs to be addressed.

2. Performance assessment

Once you’ve established the basics, delve deeper into the candidate’s performance in their previous role. Ask about their accomplishments, challenges faced, and overall impact. This can provide a tangible understanding of their capabilities and potential to deliver results.

3. Team dynamics

As important as individual performance is, it’s also critical to understand how the candidate functions within a team. Ask about their ability to collaborate, their impact on team morale, and how they handled conflicts.

4. Reason for leaving

Understanding why a candidate left their previous role can offer invaluable context and highlight potential red flags in a new hire. You might uncover some common patterns shown by the candidate in previous workplaces. 

5. Re-hire potential

This critical question serves as a capstone to your reference check. Make it clear whether the reference will rehire the candidate if given the chance. A positive response here can underscore and validate all the positive information gathered thus far.

6. Problem-solving skills

Assessing a candidate’s problem-solving ability can provide valuable insights into their critical thinking skills and adaptability. Ask the reference for examples of when the candidate had to deal with a challenging situation and how they handled it.

7. Leadership qualities

Even if the candidate is not applying for a managerial role, understanding their leadership abilities can help gauge their potential for future growth within your organization. Ask the reference about any instances where the candidate demonstrated leadership or took initiative.

8. Communication skills

Effective communication is crucial in any role. Inquire about the candidate’s communication style, ability to articulate ideas clearly, and how effectively they handle giving and receiving feedback. 

Of course, this is an optional step, as the interview process can also reflect a potential new employee’s communication skills.

Best Practices for a successful reference check

reference checking

1. Make the best out of the interview

Once you have a reliable list of your candidate’s references in hand, get in touch and conduct a reference call with each of them. Also, remember to assure them about having the consent of the candidate concerned, as you’ll need more than a sentence or two from the reference to better understand the candidate’s work ethic, character, and skills.

Before making the phone call, prepare a list of interview questions that are relevant to the job role and cover all the important aspects that are absolute non-negotiables. This will help you stay focused, stay on track, and tick off all the important boxes.

2. Provide a brief job description

It’s always beneficial to provide a brief job description to the reference before you shoot the questions. This will help them understand what the position requires, what you’re looking for, and how the candidate might perform in the job.

Find out about the candidate’s ability to work in a team, manage conflicts, and handle pressure. This will give you insights into their interpersonal skills and ability to fit into your company culture.

3. Stick to open-ended questions

When curating the questionnaire for the reference check, be mindful. Always consider questions that can help you obtain truthful information about the candidate in order to make the best hiring decision. 

Use the job description to craft a list that gets to the heart of the candidate’s profile. Ask open-ended questions that encourage detailed responses instead of asking yes/no questions. 

4. Create room for descriptive responses 

When interviewing the reference, have a conversation. Invite them to move beyond simple, pat answers. For instance, provide a scenario and ask how the candidate reacted in the situation. 

Ask about the candidate’s achievements, projects they’ve worked on, and areas of improvement. This will give you a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. Avoid leading questions or statements to get a response that will fit what you may be seeking.

5. Beware of fake references

There is always an underlying potential for people who are listed as references to be coached and planted by the candidate, also known as fake references. If the references provide answers that contradict one another, consider doing at least one more check to see if you can determine a pattern.

You can also cross-check by confirming basic information such as job titles, responsibilities, and dates of employment. This will help you verify the accuracy of the information provided by the candidate, besides confirming the authenticity of the reference.

6. Maintain notes or a candidate scorecard 

It’s always wise to keep detailed notes covering the maximum possible aspects of your conversations with references. These notes can be useful later on if you need to compare responses or look back at specific comments.

These can also act as shreds of evidence for certain topics that have been dealt with or statements that have been delivered during the conversation. It helps you stay a little more prepared for future adversities. 

To document these notes in a more streamlined way, consider maintaining a candidate scorecard. 

7. Keep up with the local laws

What you can ask during a reference check can vary from state to state and even county to county. For instance, in some states, you can’t ask a reference about salary history or things related to a potential criminal record. 

Always ensure you’re familiar with the laws in your area before conducting a reference check. You can use different online resources and journals to keep track of the regulations of the areas you mostly deal with. 

8. Take a look at your candidate’s LinkedIn profile

If you’re lucky, your candidate might even have some references from past team members and former managers on their LinkedIn profile. These personal references can be found in your candidate’s “Recommendations” section on LinkedIn.

This section is another quick and easy way to collect honest feedback about your candidate’s competencies and the type of work environment they’ve worked in.

Top 21 reference check questions for useful candidate insights

reference checking

Asking the right questions during a reference check can provide valuable insights into candidates’ suitability for a role, helping you make better data-driven decisions. Here are some questions that can help you gain the right information for the concerned job opening.

Ready to use these questions? Just hit the ‘copy’ button and they’re yours!

Introductory questions to begin with

  1. Can you confirm the candidate’s job title, responsibilities, and dates of employment?
  2. When did you come across the candidate for the first time? How did the first interaction go?
  3. How would you describe the candidate’s personality and work profile as a professional?

Delving deeper into the reference’s profile

  1. Why do you think the candidate picked you as their reference?
  2. Do you think that you stand in the position to provide the best insights about the candidate’s work profile? Why?/why not?
  3. For how long did you work with the candidate? Would you mind discussing the relationship you shared with the candidate in a professional capacity?

Questions oriented to candidate performance

  1. How would you rate the candidate’s work on a scale of 1-10? 
  2. What were the major challenges of the candidate’s role in your company? Can you provide some real-time examples of how the candidate handled the obstacles?
  3. How does the candidate deal with feedback and criticism?
  4. Can you describe the candidate’s ability to collaborate effectively in a team?
  5. What are the candidate’s key strengths and areas for improvement?
  6. How do you think the candidate contributed to the overall growth of your company over their work tenure?
  7. Was the candidate promoted during their journey with your company? If yes. What were the key virtues taken under consideration? If not, what was the main reason for the same?
  8. Is the candidate dependable and reliable with their responsibilities and deadlines?

Concluding questions for a comprehensive view

  1. How do you think the candidate has benefitted from your company’s work atmosphere and culture? Can you share one of their significant achievements while working with you?
  2. Do you think the candidate is fit for the role we’re offering them? Why/why not?
  3. What are some key factors you’d like us to take note of if we hire the candidate for our client?
  4. How can their future company, as an organization, ensure that the candidate is at the peak of their productivity?
  5. As per your knowledge of the candidate, where do you see them in the next 5 years?
  6. Do you recommend the candidate to hold leadership positions at this company in the future? Why/why not?
  7. Would you rehire this candidate? Why/why not?

Frequently asked questions

1. What type of questions can a recruiter ask the references provided by a candidate?

Recruiters can typically ask for references about the candidate’s job performance, work habits, and interpersonal skills. They may also verify factual information such as job titles, responsibilities, and dates of employment.

2. What are some crucial reference check questions that recruiters shouldn’t miss out on?

Some important questions include asking about the candidate’s punctuality, performance, ability to work in a team, and reasons for leaving the company. The answers to these questions can provide valuable insights into the candidate’s suitability for the role.

3. Should an employer ask about a candidate’s salary during a reference check?

While this can vary by location and company policy, in general, it’s considered good practice to focus on the candidate’s skills, experience, and performance rather than their previous salary. Some regions have laws prohibiting employers from asking about a candidate’s salary history, so always ensure that you are staying within the legal boundaries.