Top Questions to Ask References for Effective Hiring

June 2, 2023
Hady ElHady
Top Questions to Ask References for Effective Hiring

Reference checks are a crucial part of the hiring process and a potential source of valuable and relevant information regarding your candidate’s suitability for the job. In addition to confirming or denying your candidate’s claims, former employers and colleagues can provide details of their strengths and weaknesses in the workplace. 

However, this requires ensuring that you talk to the right people, ask the right questions, and pay close attention to the answers and how they are delivered. If you are a potential candidate, check out these posts on writing successful reference requests and crafting the perfect reference request email

In this article, you’ll learn the top questions to ask references to ensure you get the information you need to make an informed hiring decision. You will also learn how to ask open-ended questions to get detailed responses and avoid leading questions. Finally, you will learn about the best practices in different hiring situations and the legal considerations to keep in mind when doing reference checks. 

Our automated reference checks provide invaluable insights from past managers, peer groups, or direct reports into a candidate's past performance. By eliminating the need for manual reference checks, our automated reference checks streamline your hiring process and minimize the risk of hiring the wrong person.

Top questions to ask references

An effective reference check includes questions that address multiple aspects of the candidate’s suitability for the position. These can be grouped into three main categories: general questions on the candidate’s work history and skills, specific questions on their role and performance, and behavioral questions on their work style and approach. 

General questions

  • Can you tell me the candidate’s start and end dates and their job title?
  • What is your relationship with the candidate? In what capacity did the two of you work together?
  • Was the candidate reliable in terms of punctuality and task completion?
  • We are considering the candidate for a role that requires skills in X, Y, and Z. On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the candidate on each?
  • Why did the candidate leave your company?
  • If you had the chance, would you rehire the candidate?

Specific questions

  • What were the candidate’s roles at your company?
  • What were their primary responsibilities in those roles?
  • What was the candidate’s biggest accomplishment while working for you?
  • What would you say are the candidate’s main professional strengths?
  • In what areas would you say the candidate needs to improve?

Behavioral questions

  • How would you describe the candidate‘s communication skills?
  • Would you say the candidate is more effective working alone or as part of a team?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s working relationships with co-workers?
  • Can you give me an example of a challenge the candidate faced and explain how they handled it?
  • Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for the candidate’s future manager?

How to ask open-ended questions to get detailed responses

In addition to covering the right topics, an effective reference check requires open-ended questions to ensure detailed answers. Close-ended questions can be answered with a simple yes or no, making it unlikely that you will learn anything of value. 

You should also be careful not to ask leading questions. These are questions where you indicate what you want to hear in the answer, so you probably will hear it: “The candidate’s listening skills are excellent, correct?” 

“Was the candidate’s overall performance exceptional?” is a close-ended and somewhat leading question, as you provide the adjective you want the reference to confirm. Instead, ask, “How would you describe the candidate’s performance?” This encourages a more detailed response and is likelier to elicit an honest evaluation of the candidate’s performance. 

Finally, listen carefully to the responses and take notes to check for inconsistencies or contradictory answers. The reference’s tone and inflection can indicate potential red flags. Remember, you don’t have access to context and non-verbal cues on the phone, which be misleading. 

Hiring top talent is a critical task that requires a thorough screening process. Modern TA teams use HiPeople’s comprehensive screening toolkit to reduce screening time by 95%.

Best practices for reference checks in different hiring situations

Different hiring situations require different approaches. Keep reading to learn about some best practices to keep in mind. 

  • Adjust questions to the type of role: Different roles require different skills and responsibilities. If you’re hiring for a managerial position, you can get valuable information on their style from their peers and the people they have managed. 
  • Address special role requirements: If the role has specific requirements, you should include questions that address them. For example, a remote or hybrid role can require additional technical or soft skills that you need to consider in your reference check. 
  • Assess culture fit and team dynamics: Include questions to assess whether the candidate is a good fit for your company culture, especially if it’s very strong or unique. Likewise, it’s essential to determine whether the candidate fits your company’s team dynamics, particularly if they will lead teams. 

Our state-of-the-art screening toolkit combines the power of AI-based assessments and automated reference checks, enabling you to make data-driven decisions about hiring the best fit for your organization.

Legal considerations for reference checks

When it comes to conducting a reference check, knowing what to ask is just as important as knowing what not to ask. If you want to avoid legal issues, stick to questions that are directly related to the job and avoid the following topics:

  • Demographics: don’t ask references about the candidate’s demographics, like age, sex, sexual orientation, or religious views.
  • Health: the candidate’s health is another taboo topic, including medical absences or disabilities.
  • Finances: don’t ask questions about the candidate’s finances or credit score. In fact, even the candidate’s salary history at the company is off-limits in some states.
  • Family: don’t ask questions about the candidate’s marital status, children, or other family members.

Incorporating Reference Checks in Your Hiring Process

Reference checks are crucial and can save you from wasting time and resources on unsuitable candidates. No matter how ideal the candidate seems, always ask for references and check them out thoroughly, using a structured and consistent approach. Check out these posts on reference check templates and reference check templates for TA leaders

With HiPeople's screening toolkit, you can make better hiring decisions, reduce the risk of bad hires, and elevate the overall quality of your organization. With HiPeople, you can rest assured that you are hiring the right talent for the job.