The best employee reference check questions to ask

July 12, 2021
Camille Hogg
The best employee reference check questions to ask

Knowing the best employee reference check questions to ask can be the difference between an insightful and informative reference check, and a useless one.

And sometimes, knowing the reference check questions you should avoid can be just as important as knowing the right ones.

Take Mrs West, for example. In 2015, when she interviewed for a job to be a healthcare call centre advisor with the NHS, she was delighted to get a conditional offer pending a successful reference check.

After working for some time as a prison nurse, continuing issues with osteoarthritis, asthma and depression made it hard for her to do her job. So, she took some extended sick leave, and despite her employment being terminated 18 months later, everything seemed to be on mutually good terms.

That’s why the reference checks, when they came, were a bit of a shock — and they cost her the new role.

As part of the process, a nurse phoned her and probed about her health conditions, evaluating her ability to perform the largely sedentary role. The resulting report highlighted Mrs West’s limited mobility, making recommendations for adjustments including regular, short breaks every 30 minutes. Meanwhile, a reference from a manager highlighted her long-term sick leave.

As a result, the employer made a number of discriminatory assumptions about Mrs West’s ability to do the job, and they withdrew the offer. The case went to court — and Mrs West won on the grounds of unfair treatment as a result of her reference check. But she still lost the job.

And this case — which is one of many — is why it’s essential that you know which reference check questions you should avoid, as well as the right questions to ask your candidate’s referees. In this post, we’re going to take a look at some good examples of questions you can ask during a reference check, as well as some you definitely can’t.

If you’ve missed the first two articles in this series, we recommend starting here first (don’t worry — we’ll wait while you catch up).

- What is a candidate reference check and why should you do one?
- How to conduct a candidate reference check

How to ask reference questions in the right way

You’re probably going to want to skip straight to the question examples, but stay with us for a moment. The way you ask questions is as important as the questions themselves — and getting this right will help you collect high quality, focused insights that help you build a full picture of your candidate.

So how do you ask the right questions? We’ve got five rules of thumb:

- Use neutral language
- Keep questions focused
- Allow for open-ended feedback
- Avoid ratings, offer choices
- Use a semi-structured format
- Use neutral language

The language we use has power — and this is especially true when conducting an employee reference check, where we want to remove bias as much as possible. For example, if you refer to ‘weaknesses’ or ‘mistakes’ in your reference check questions, you’re implying a value judgement on those qualities. Instead, it’s far better to frame questions using neutral language to drive the best quality insights.

Instead of… What are the candidate’s weaknesses?
Try: What are the candidate’s areas for improvement?

Keep questions focused

Keeping questions short and focused on one key goal ensures that the referee is clear on what you’re asking of them. This ensures that you collect high-quality insights focused on the aspects of the candidate that you want to find out.

Instead of… Please describe a time when the candidate demonstrated motivation, ability to problem-solve and leadership skills?
Try: Please describe a time when the candidate demonstrated their ability to solve a problem?

Avoid ratings, offer choices

Whenever possible, consider using well-balanced rating options instead of numerical ratings. Research proves that when we force choices in this way, it reduces the ‘rating inflation’ of answers, meaning you collect better insights.

Instead of… How team oriented is the candidate on a scale from 1-10?
Try: What do you think is more important to the candidate: delivering strong results or keeping harmonic team vibes?

Allow for open-ended feedback

In order to collect the best quality insights, it’s important to provide referees with opportunities to provide open-ended feedback about a candidate. This will provide more nuanced insight of their experience and relationship with the candidate, and also reduce the introduction of bias or manipulation.

Instead of: Was the candidate a good team member?
Try: What distinguished the candidate as a team member?

Use a semi-structured format

When conducting multiple checks for the same role, asking the same questions for each candidate will help you reduce bias and collect higher quality insights. Once you’ve received your response, you can then adjust your follow-up questions accordingly (and we even have a feature to help you do that in the HiPeople platform 🥳)

Reference check questions you should always ask

The questions you ask candidates hinge on what kind of information you want to find out about them. In this section, we’ll give you some examples of different types of questions:

- Employee reference questions to ask for compliance
- Employee reference questions to ask to determine values or culture-fit
- Employee reference questions to ask for skills and experience assessment
- Employee reference questions to ask to identify onboarding needs
- Employee reference questions to ask about a candidate’s character

Let’s take a closer look.

Employee reference questions to ask for compliance

As the most basic level of reference check, references used for compliance usually seek to verify key information about a candidate, such as their employment status.

- What were the dates of the candidate’s employment at your organisation?
- What was the candidate’s job title when they worked at your organisation?
- How many people were employed in your organisation when you worked with the candidate?
- Was the candidate employed on a full time, or part time basis?
- Was the candidate a permanent or temporary employee?

Employee reference questions to ask to determine values or culture-fit

Asking questions designed for values or culture-fit helps you understand how a potential employee will fit, or even add to, your existing team and culture. This involves finding out how the candidate works with others, what motivates them, and how they make decisions.

When employees feel more connected to their organisation’s culture and mission, it means they’re more likely to stay. Research also draws a strong correlation between culture and employee engagement, productivity, and performance.

- What distinguished the candidate as a team member?
- How does the candidate generally respond to feedback?
- What motivates the candidate the most about their role?
- What things does the candidate value most at work?
- How does the candidate communicate with others?

Employee reference questions to ask for skills and experience assessment

The reference check process can be an ideal time to ask how the candidate’s referees perceive their skill set and professional experience. These questions can vary by role and seniority, but can focus on attributes including strengths, role-fit, accomplishments, and leadership skills.

- What are the candidate’s key strengths?
- What are the candidate’s key areas for improvement?
- How would you describe the candidate’s work ethic?
- What makes the candidate a good fit for this role?
- What were the candidate’s key contributions to the team?
- How would you describe the candidate’s leadership style?

Employee reference questions to ask to about a candidate’s character

Sometimes you just want to know a bit more about who a candidate is outside of work — not just a stressful interview setting. Whether they’re new to the workforce or you’re just struggling to get a good read, the character reference can be a helpful barometer for whether or not they’ll fit well in their team.

- How would you describe the candidate’s personality?
- How does the candidate get along with people?
- How does the candidate respond to change?
- What is the candidate most passionate about?

Employee reference questions to ask to identify onboarding needs

Once you know you plan on hiring a candidate, it’s important to create the right environment so that they’re set up for long-term success at your company. This is where the reference check can come in handy. Asking targeted questions around the employee’s social, management, or physical environment needs will help you tailor their onboarding experience to suit them.

- What kind of working environment does the candidate need to thrive?
- What kind of management style works best for the candidate?- How would you describe the candidate’s working style?
- How does the candidate prefer to receive support at work?

Employee reference check questions you should always avoid

Just like the organisation in the story at the start of this article, asking the wrong type of questions during a reference check can land you in legal hot water.

Here are the topics that are off the table:

- Age
- Sex
- Sexual orientation
- Gender reassignment
- Pregnancy, children, or marital status
- Disability or ill-healthRace or ethnicity
- Religion or belief
- Appearance

These are known as protected characteristics. While employment and discrimination laws may vary by country and state, asking questions about these topics during the interview or reference check processes is generally considered illegal under discrimination laws. We’ll take a deeper look at the legal implications of reference checking in the next article — but for now, let’s take a look at the questions you should never ask.

- Do you think the candidate’s age will make it difficult for them to do the job well?
- What is the candidate’s sexual orientation?
- How does the candidate balance work and family life?
- Is the candidate currently pregnant or planning to have any children soon?
- Is the candidate married or single?
- Does the candidate’s disability or condition impact their ability to perform the role?
- What is the candidate’s religion?
- How would you describe the candidate’s appearance?

Reduce the bias in your hiring process with HiPeople ✅

In the next post in this series, we’ll be taking on the topic of how to make sure your reference checks are legally compliant — follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn so you don’t miss a thing. And while you’re waiting, why not see how our platform can help you reduce the bias in your reference checking process by booking a demo with one of our lovely team members.