After reviewing applications and conducting interviews, you’ve identified a promising job candidate. The next step in your hiring process may be to conduct a reference check. Professional and personal references can help you better understand the candidate’s experience, qualifications, and character and evaluate whether they have the ability to succeed in the position you’re trying to fill.
Creating a consistent structure around reference checks also helps create a standardized hiring process. At a minimum, checking references may help you verify the information the candidate has provided is accurate.
But what are the best questions to ask when checking references? Good insights require good questions.
Here we’ll share the best reference check questions used by human resources professionals and background screening companies. Different jurisdictions could have restrictions on the types of questions you can ask a prior employer, and you should consult with your legal counsel to ensure you’re asking only compliant questions of candidates.
What are common reference check questions?
Reference checks go beyond standard verification checks that report dates of employment and job titles. Common questions for a reference check often include a mix of three types: open-ended, yes/no, and scale rating. Lists of the best reference check questions include these different question formats to accommodate varying communication styles and provide multiple ways to gain ample information.
Organized by these three types, below are example questions to ask references when hiring someone:
Open-ended reference check questions
Open-ended questions can’t be answered “yes” or “no;” they require the reference to provide more detailed information about the applicant’s work experience, qualifications, or character. You can learn a lot from this type of question, provided the reference is open to sharing details and can communicate clearly.
Of all the types of questions for reference checks, open-ended questions are the most likely to reveal new details that can help you determine if the candidate has the experience needed for the role and a fit for your organization.
However, answers to open-ended questions are the most time-consuming to gather and not all references will be able to spend the time needed to share thorough responses.
- Can you describe the applicant’s job performance?
- What are the applicant’s greatest strengths and weaknesses?
Yes/no reference check questions
These questions are straightforward, and efficient with a simple “yes” or “no” answer. While they don’t provide detailed insights, they can help you confirm aspects of the applicant’s work style and performance.
If you get an answer to a yes or no question that raises concerns about the applicant’s suitability for the job, you may want to follow up with an open-ended question to learn more details.
- Did the employee complete assignments on time?
- Was the employee punctual?
Scale rating reference check questions
These closed-end questions allow the reference to rate an employee on a scale of 1 to 5 (or another scale you choose) to indicate performance within a range. Though fairly simple, the reference will need to put some thought into their choices, which means they fall somewhere between open-ended and yes or no questions in terms of how quickly they can be answered.
- On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating poor and 5 indicating excellent, how would you rate the employee on dependability? On completing work on time?
What reference check questions should you ask in the hiring process?
The reference check questions you ask in the hiring process will depend in part on the nature of the relationship between the candidate and the reference, so you’ll first want to determine the nature of that relationship. If the reference worked with the candidate, you may want to ask questions about work experience, qualifications and character. If not, you may need to focus on character reference check questions.
A reference check interview usually starts by asking the reference for their name and job title, and the name of the company where the reference worked with the candidate. (For a character reference check, you can note where the reference worked while interacting with the job applicant.)
Then, it may follow with a few simple questions to learn more about the connection between the candidate and the reference, such as:
- How do you know the candidate?
- How long have you worked with (or known) them?
- In what capacity did you work with (or known) them?
Further reference check questions can verify details of the applicant’s previous work history, including:
- What positions did the candidate hold, including dates for each position?
- What were their job responsibilities?
- Did the candidate receive any promotions?
- Why did they leave (voluntary or involuntary)?
From there, you can delve into additional work experience reference questions to get a better understanding of the candidate’s skills and experiences.
Examples of work experience reference questions include:
- Did the employee demonstrate good time management skills?
- What were the employee’s strengths and weaknesses?
- What were the employee’s greatest accomplishments?
Top work experience reference questions
Employment reference check questions related to work experience allow you to gather information about the employee’s work history and qualifications for the position. These include questions about the type of work the candidate performed, how well they performed it, and how they interacted with other employees.
Taking the time upfront to think about what to ask when calling references can save time during the reference check process. It allows you to focus on the information that will be most helpful to your company when evaluating a potential new hire.
Open-ended work experience reference questions
When asking open-ended questions, it’s important not to rush the reference or to comment on their answers. Let them answer each question at their own pace while you take thorough notes. Top work experience reference questions for new hires include:
- What was/is the candidate's job and the nature of their duties?
- How would you describe their job performance?
- Did they reliably complete assigned tasks?
- Did they demonstrate initiative? Can you provide an example?
- When they begin a task, do they carry it through to completion?
- What could they have done to improve their job performance?
- What are their strongest abilities?
- What are their weaknesses?
- Do you have any major concerns about this candidate?
Scale rating work experience reference questions
The reference is asked to rate the candidate for each characteristic listed. For example, “On a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 indicating poor and 5 indicating excellent, how would you rate the employee on the following:”
- Collaborates well with coworkers
- Takes initiative
- Ability to work independently
- Time management skills
- Communication skills
- Treats coworkers with respect
- Team player
When asking these questions in writing, it’s a good idea to provide an option for the reference to indicate they do not know the answer to the question, or that the question does not apply to the candidate’s previous job duties. Otherwise they may skip a question without explanation.
Yes or no work experience reference questions
These allow the reference to answer simple “yes” or “no” questions, such as:
- If the candidate is eligible for rehire and a suitable position were open at your company, would you hire them again?
- Would you recommend them to another employer?
Top character reference questions
Character reference checks can be helpful when the applicant has limited work experience or a former employer cannot provide any information beyond a verification check. Employers may also use character reference checks to understand whether the candidate represents the organization’s values.
Here are a several example employment character reference check questions:
- What is the nature of your relationship with the candidate?
- How long have you known them?
- Would you recommend them to an employer?
Get a professional reference check with Checkr
Checking references is often part of a thorough and thoughtful hiring process. It may provide additional insights about the candidate that interviewing alone cannot, and can help you make more informed hiring decisions.
Reference checking can be time consuming, though. Communicating with references may require multiple emails or phone calls, and getting the maximum value out of the time you spend talking with a reference takes skill.
Checkr can take the time-consuming task of reference checks for new hires off your human resources team’s to-do list, while still ensuring you gather the information you need. Checkr’s team will conduct the reference check and document the answers to a set of our predetermined questions to ensure consistency. We offer both personal and professional reference checks that can be used as a standalone screening or part of a comprehensive background check to meet your hiring needs.
The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.
About the author
Gerri writes about small business topics, with a focus on background checks, hiring best practices, and business finance. She has written numerous articles, educational programs, and certification courses. Her articles have been widely syndicated by industry publications and she is the author of five books.