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What to ask when doing a reference check

Mikaella McInerney
October 13, 2022

In this article, we’ll break down exactly what kinds of questions you should be asking during a reference check, and how to get the most detailed and practical responses.

New to hiring? No problem!
This article is the hiring 101 that will help you to hit the ground running.

Reference checks are crucial. They are one of the most significant elements of any successful recruitment process, shedding light on a candidate’s working style and past performance. A reference check can reveal red flags, or give you the perfect piece of information you need to ensure successful onboarding. Reference checks reduce the risk of mis-hiring, support your organization’s existing managers, reduce hiring bias, improve employee onboarding and can be the final piece of selection criteria you need to hire the right candidate. They are all-important!

So it makes it even more important that you ask the right questions when doing a reference check. In this article, we’ll break down exactly what kinds of questions you should be asking, and how to get the most detailed and practical responses. Read on to find out everything you need to know!

What is a reference check?

First, a quick refresher on the basics. A reference check is the process of gathering feedback on a potential candidate to verify the information they’ve already given you and learn what it was like to work with them from someone who already has that experience. You can gain feedback on your candidate from their peers, managers, colleagues, direct reports and even teachers. We call these people who give feedback referees or sometimes references.

Reference checks gather information to find out about the candidate’s strengths, working styles and areas for development. They verify the professional and educational history your candidate has shared . And they might also be used to find out more about a candidate’s personality to understand how they’ll fit within your organization’s existing culture and team.

For a more detailed breakdown of exactly what a reference check is (and isn’t!), check out our comprehensive guide.

What can be asked on a reference check?

A reference check can cover all kinds of information, including previous work performance, strengths and weaknesses, working style, personality, work ethic and more. It’s a great chance to gather 360° feedback on the candidate, so there’s lots of information you can seek to gather here.

Important questions you might want to ask include:

  • Compliance questions: These questions ensure that the information a candidate has given you is correct. For example, you might want to check their employment status, the dates they worked for the referee’s organization, whether they were part-time or full-time and more.
  • Skills and experience questions: A referee will be able to give you insight into how your candidate’s on-paper skills actually functioned in the real world. Focus on attributes like strengths, role-fit, accomplishments and leadership skills.
  • Values or culture-fit questions: You might be wondering how a candidate will fit into your existing teams and culture. Here’s a great opportunity for a referee to tell you! Ask questions to find out how the candidate works with others, what motivates them and how they make decisions.
  • Character questions: An interview is a stressful experience for most candidates, so this is a chance for you to find out what the candidate’s personality is like when they’re not in a high-pressure time-restricted situation. You can use this set of questions to find out about the candidate’s personality, adaptability, passions, people skills and more.

As you’re asking these questions, some important things to keep in mind are:

Use neutral language

Neutral language helps you remove bias and ensure that your own opinion isn’t influencing the way a referee answers the question. Avoid words like “weaknesses” or “mistakes”, which imply a value judgment. Try saying something like, “What are the candidate’s areas for improvement?” to drive high quality insights.

Keep questions focused

The shorter and clearer the question, the more likely the referee will be able to give you a detailed and thoughtful response. If you ask a long and complicated question, the referee might struggle to parse it or forget half of the question by the time you get to the end. Decide exactly what you want to ask and then stick to the point, with a targeted question like: “Please describe a time when the candidate demonstrated their ability to solve a problem?”

Allow for open-ended feedback

Avoid yes/no answers at all times! The more open-ended the question, the more likely you’ll gain detailed and useful information in response. It also reduces the risk of bias. Instead of asking a question like, “Was this candidate a good team member?”, try: “What distinguished this candidate as a team member?”

Use a semi-structured format

You might want to tailor your reference questions for each individual candidate if you have specific questions about their working history. But whenever possible, ask each candidate’s referees the same group of questions, so that you can reduce bias, compare accurately and collect high quality insights. You can always ask follow-up questions if you need to!

Want a complete list of questions? Check out our guide to the best employee reference check questions to ask!

What can not be asked in a reference check?

Just as there are important questions you need to ask in a reference check, there are also important questions you need to avoid.

These concern topics which are called protected characteristics. Employment and discrimination laws vary by country and state, but asking questions about any of the following topics during an interview or reference check is generally considered illegal. Don’t land yourself in legal hot water during a reference check!

You cannot ask any questions about:

  • Age
  • Sex and gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy, children or marital status
  • Disability or ill-health
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Religion or belief
  • Appearance

How should I conduct a reference check?

There are lots of different ways to conduct a reference check. The traditional format is on the phone—but in general, we don’t recommend phone reference checks. They can be rushed and it’s easy for you to forget a question or an answer. They are also often difficult to schedule, slowing down your recruitment process.

You could also try a written reference, where you send the referee your questions in writing. This is more likely to get you an in-depth and thoughtful response… but of course, it’s very time-consuming, especially if you’re checking and comparing multiple referees.

Another option is outsourcing your reference checks to a third-party provider. This frees up valuable talent team time, but can be expensive. It also relies on the provider to decide what fits best for your organization's open role and culture—something that you know much better.

Automated reference checks are a modern and efficient method with data-driven insights built into their work. These platforms speed up the reference check process by automating manual parts like contacting referees, scheduling and conducting a call, documenting and analyzing the result, and more. Then they analyze the feedback and provide benchmarked candidate reports, allowing the recruiting team to make data-driven hiring and onboarding decisions.

For more guidance about how to ask reference questions, check out our guide.

Ready to get automated yourself? Book a free demo with HiPeople today to ask the right questions in the right way… and faster than ever!

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