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How to Ask Role-Based Reference Check Questions
Liz Marchetti
November 19, 2021

Asking role-based questions for all your candidate reference checks will help you make fairer, more efficient hiring decisions. Get our tried-and-tested role-based question template, with examples of questions you can use to assess candidate skills.

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Sometimes, we just ‘know’ things. We know that we probably shouldn’t take a shortcut down a badly-lit path, or that we should call a friend who we haven’t heard from in a while. Or maybe, that maybe we shouldn’t hire a candidate who came off a little aggressive in an interview, but has a brilliant list of role-related accolades and experience.

And whether you call it your intuition, spidey sense, or gut feeling, there’s a science behind that feeling. It comes from a primitive, emotional tangle of neurons in our hippocampus (and our guts, for that matter) all linked to our experiences: our successes, our failures, and most importantly, our brushes with danger.

During the hiring process, we hear people justify selecting a candidate based on gut feelings all the time.

“But I’ve got a great sense for these things,” you say. “I can tell if someone’s going to be a fit once I get them in the interview room.”

And scientifically speaking, we know where you’re coming from. But here’s the thing: your gut feel is based on years worth of experiences — or biological data — that may not always have a basis in logic or rationality. It’s the same instinct that tells you not to walk down a secluded path as the one told you there was a monster hiding under your bed when you were a kid.

So how can you sense check your gut check on a candidate? By asking role-based questions during the reference check that help you collect specific, verifiable data on their experience and skills.

In this article, we’re going to walk you through why asking role-based questions for all your candidate reference checks will help you make fairer, more efficient hiring decisions. We’ll help you build a role-based question template, and offer examples of questions you can use to assess candidate skills.

Do you need to conduct a reference check for every candidate?

While conventional wisdom would have us believe that it’s only worth checking references for executive or senior leadership roles, we’re about to (very politely) tell you why that’s wrong by using a good old-fashioned woodworking analogy: measure twice, cut once.

When you’re hiring a new candidate, the interview process is your first chance to ‘measure’ — or find out more about — their skills, personality, and experience. But interviews can be stressful and performative. Plus, research has consistently shown that unstructured interviews are prone to interviewer bias, and as such are poor predictors of a candidate’s job performance. This means you might not learn everything you need to know about your candidate in the job interview process alone.

When you carry out a reference check — the ‘measure twice’ part of the analogy — you can see how the candidate’s qualities match up with what their colleagues, managers, and peers are saying about them, and get a sense of how successful they will be at your company.

If you’re only checking references for managers or more senior candidates, it means that you’re only checking the skills, experience, and personality fit for around 10% to 20% of your employees. That means there’s still 80% of your employees that could end up being a sub-optimal fit.

Research by Gallup in 2019 showed that mis-hires cost the US economy $1tn every year. Beyond the bottom line impact, a mis-hire can also affect the engagement and motivation of existing team members, too.

Should you ask the same questions for every candidate reference check?

If you’ve read any ‘best reference check questions to ask’ guides elsewhere on the internet, you’ve probably seen many similar sets of five to 10 questions. These questions might include:

  • When did the candidate work at your company?
  • What role did the candidate perform while they worked at your company?
  • What were the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • Why is the candidate leaving the company?

It’s pretty common that reference checks include a basic, standard question template that every candidate, no matter their role or seniority, gets asked. Having a core set of questions to ask during the reference check process is always a great idea — it will help you gather consistent, comparable data for each candidate. It can also help you to understand the bigger picture about your hiring pipeline and the types of candidates you attract in the future.

However, are these enough to find out all about your candidate’s working style, personality or how they prefer to be managed? Probably not — and that’s where role-based questions can help you differentiate between your candidates and pick the right person for the role.

Why should you ask role-based questions during the reference check?

Hiring for different roles and levels of experience will mean with each candidate, you’ll have a different set of needs on the type of information you need to gather during the reference check.

Asking questions that are specific to the candidate’s role will help you make more informed decisions about their skills and experience. It’ll also help you compare your candidate’s specific skills and experience side-by-side to help you choose the one that will fit best in your organisation.

If you’re hiring a lot of employees for the same role or know you’ll hire more for the same part of your business in the future, it’s a good idea to build a standard question template to help you build a data-driven hiring process.

The HiPeople Content Library

You can also use or build templates right inside the HiPeople platform too 🎉 You can use our modular content library to help you plug and play the questions you’d like to ask your candidate, or you can select from one of our role-specific templates so that you have a consistent way of finding out the details you need to know about your candidate.

Using role-specific question templates means you won’t waste time asking referees the wrong types of questions about your candidates. For example, you wouldn’t ask a referee about a candidate’s people management skills if they’re applying for a junior role, as it’s unlikely to be the main focus of their role and won’t yield any useful insight.

How to ask role-based questions when conducting a candidate reference check

Role-based questions are an important part of the reference check process because they allow you to gather more accurate and specific insights about your candidate, depending on the skills you need most for your business. They also help you prioritise which skills are most important, and which ones are more of a nice-to-have.

In this section, we’ll take a look at some examples of candidate reference check questions that are role and skill-specific. We’ll cover role-specific questions for:

  • Senior roles
  • General management roles
  • Technical roles
  • Commercial roles
  • Product roles
  • Design roles
  • Support roles
  • Admin and IT support roles
  • HR and People roles
  • Operational roles
  • Finance and Legal roles

Role-specific questions to ask for senior roles

For senior leaders, you’re going to want to tailor your questions towards their leadership style, ability to motivate, communication skills, and how they develop members of their teams.

  • How far does the candidate communicate an inspiring vision to motivate a team?
  • How does the candidate work to develop team members according to their needs?
  • To what extent does the candidate make it clear to other team members what they should be working on?

Role-specific questions to ask for general management roles

When hiring for a management role, you’ll need to ask referees questions that are specific to the area they’ll be working in, such as marketing or sales. However, you’ll also need to ask questions on their leadership style and practical skills, such as strategy and budget management.

  • On a scale of 1–10, how skilled is the candidate at managing budgets?
  • How would you rate the candidate’s ability to make strategic business decisions?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s ability to manage their team?

Role-specific questions to ask for technical roles

For technical roles, such as software engineers and data scientists, you may want to ask specific questions about programming languages or the ability to manage projects.

  • On a scale of 1–10, how skilled is the candidate at developing software prototypes?
  • How would you rate the candidate’s ability to analyse big data?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s skill in analysing software specifications?

Role-specific questions to ask for commercial roles

For candidates interviewing for sales and marketing roles, you might want to ask their referees questions on how they develop relationships with customers, build commercial strategy, and source leads.

  • On a scale of 1–10, how skilled is the candidate at prospecting new customers?
  • How well does the candidate maintain good relationships with customers?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s ability to evaluate key performance indicators?

Role-specific questions to ask for product roles

As the people responsible for building the solution you’re offering, employees in the product team often demonstrate skills including understanding your customer, defining new features, and market analysis.

  • On a scale of 1–10, how skilled is the candidate at performing market research?
  • How well does the candidate manage product testing?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s ability to understand customer needs?

Role-specific questions to ask for design roles

For creative roles such as design, reference check questions can be tailored towards how your candidate develops ideas, thinks about their design process, and uses creative software. You can also ask about specific key skills, such as animation or game design if these are relevant to the role.

  • On a scale of 1–10, how skilled is the candidate at developing design ideas?
  • How well does the candidate manage their design process?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s skills with creative suite software?

Role-specific questions to ask for support roles

Support roles are usually one of the first lines of contact with your customers. To get the best feel for your candidate, try asking referees about their problem-solving skills and product knowledge, as well as soft skills including communication, relationship management, and active listening skills.

  • On a scale of 1–10, how skilled is the candidate at guaranteeing customer satisfaction?
  • How well does the candidate manage conflict?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s ability to identify customer needs?

Role-specific questions to ask for admin and IT roles

Admin and IT roles can vary, but they often require strong organisation, people management, and clerical or budget management skills. In your candidate reference check, try asking questions that dig deeper into their ability to manage office equipment and resources needs, as well as evaluating their ability to troubleshoot.

  • On a scale of 1–10, how skilled is the candidate at managing administrative systems?
  • How well does the candidate manage office resources and equipment requirements?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s ability to arrange event needs?

Role-specific questions to ask for HR and people roles

When hiring for your people team, it’s essential that your reference check includes questions about their people management and relational skills, such as how they communicate, interview candidates, and maintain confidentiality policies.

  • On a scale of 1–10, how skilled is the candidate at communicating with interview candidates?
  • How well does the candidate interview people?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s ability to observe confidentiality?

Role-specific questions to ask for operational roles

Operations roles are the glue that hold companies together, so you’ll want to make sure the questions in your reference check are tailored towards topics like logistics, relationship management, and budget management.

  • On a scale of 1–10, how skilled is the candidate at analysing supply chain strategies?
  • How well does the candidate manage inventory?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s ability to estimate budgets?

Role-specific questions to ask for finance and legal roles

The finance and legal departments are usually subject to more stringent reference and background checks for compliance reasons due to the nature of their work. However, you can still build an effective template to better understand candidate skills.

  • On a scale of 1–10, how skilled is the candidate at analysing supply chain strategies?
  • How well does the candidate manage inventory?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s ability to estimate budgets?

Hire more efficiently and fairly with HiPeople

We help global organisations including Celonis, SumUp, and Prisma build more informed and data-driven reference check processes using our role-specific question templates. To learn more, book a chat or demo with one of our marvellous team members.

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