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How to successfully check a candidates references.

Reference Check Flow

  • Identify: Why are you calling, for who are you gathering references, and who you are to the organization / role
  • Clarify: What is the role the candidate is being entertained for, describe key responsibilities so that the reference can speak to those.
  • Disarm: Let them know that their response is being used to better understand the candidate, not as a sole hiring decision. Remind that you are not expecting perfection from anyone.
  • Ask for Permission: Did the candidate tell you that they are using you as a reference? Is it okay to ask you a few questions about the candidate and their working style?

You should conduct references checks to:

  • Spot potential red flags and warning signs about previous behavior.
  • Ensure employment history information is accurate such as dates of employment and job duties and job title.
  • Verify facts and skillsets by speaking with former managers, and spotting consistency across references
  • Discover how the candidate interacts with coworkers and takes direction from supervisors.
  • Learn about the candidate’s work ethic, working style, dependability, attitude, and communication skills.

Common Reference Questions

  • What is your relationship with the candidate?
  • How long have you worked with, or known the candidate?
  • Have you worked directly or indirectly with the candidate?
  • If applicable, please describe this candidate’s management style. How did they support coworkers or subordinates?
  • If you had the opportunity, would you (re-)hire this job candidate? Why?
  • In your opinion, what are the candidate’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
  • Did the candidate get along with their co-workers and management?
  • Tell me what it’s like to work with the candidate.
  • Tell me about a time you saw the candidate handle a stressful or difficult situation or customer.
  • What advice can you give me to successfully manage the job candidate?
  • What was their biggest accomplishment while you knew them?
  • How does the candidate handle conflict? How about pressure? Stress?
  • Do you think the candidate can do the job we spoke about?
  • How does the candidate respond to feedback?
  • In your opinion, what motivates the candidate?
  • What advice would you give the candidates future manager to set up the candidate for success?
  • What else do I need to know about the candidate that I didn’t already ask?

Some fun Reference questions.

  • What (spirit) animal best describes the candidate? Why?
  • If you could start a company with the candidate, what would they do in the company? Why?
  • Would you use this candidate as a reference? Why
  • If you had to complete an escape room, would you have this candidate as your team member? Why or why not?
  • What TV Character best describes the candidate? Why?
  • If you could send this candidate to take one professional development class. What would it be? Why?

Reference Checks Further Explained

One of the biggest considerations when hiring is the consistency across references and throughout the hiring process. If an interviewer gets a bad feeling from the interview or from a reference, ask all the references. If there is a glaring concern, you can ask the candidate directly about it, but be careful not to identify the reference source(s) of the concern. Refresh yourself on your state’s specific legalities of reference checking. It is a safe bet that you should only get references on a person if they give you permission to contact that person to get a reference. Former employers are only required to give you confirmation of employment and dates of employment. Only contact references from a former employer if the candidate gives permission. “back door” referencing has negative consequences and can have legal liabilities.

References can be a boring part of the interview process. This is true for everyone involved. Sometimes “fun” questions can be a great way to get information without asking the common dry questions. The best questions are open ended questions that get to a lot of similar points to the common questions but give a more creative medium for the reference to express them. Avoid asking questions that are leading, too ambiguous. If you ask about something specific, make sure to make the question as natural as possible.

A key point to remember, is that references should never be used as a sole deciding factor to hire a candidate. They are used to look for consistencies confirming or denying feelings or concerns identified from their resume, background, or interviews.  Some companies no longer take references, because people tend to give references that think highly of them. We still give references because the best predictor of future behavior is past behaviors. References are a great way to for a consistent view of past behaviors.

Additionally, it should be a red flag if the reference is not great, but it should not be surprising if the reference is overly positive. It is also somewhat of a red flag if the reference did not know they were a reference (not if they did not know they were a reference for the specific role). Good professionals will communicate to and prep their references. Keep in mind, references are people too, do not let the references personality or lack of personality sway the value of their response.

Finally, take good notes and save them. This can be important for employment liability purposes but can also add value to your hiring process.  Ask the reference if you can connect with them or reach out if you need anything further. You never know when a reference might be a valuable addition to your network. If you have other roles you are recruiting for, ask them if they know anyone. Good candidates often know good people, who know good people. Make the most of your time, by getting as much value from conversations as possible.


Need Help?

Rex Recruiting provides training & outsource reference checking services. Contact us to find out more!