Boost Your Hiring Success with Reference Check Questions

Paul PetersReference Check Questions

Approximately 70 percent of businesses call job references as part of a background check for a prospective employee. 

If you’re not already part of this group, it’s definitely time to start calling at least one professional reference to learn more about the job candidate’s work ethic and skill set before you offer them a position. Additionally, you can get some much-needed insight by speaking to a personal reference. 

However, it’s also vital that you learn how to use open-ended questions and other similar techniques to gain information that is valuable enough to help you make a hiring decision.

What are Reference Check Questions?

Although some job seekers will provide professional and personal references on their resume, you may have to ask for them during the application and interview process. Either way, you’re going to want to contact an average of three job references for any candidate you’re seriously considering hiring. Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to define what a reference check question actually is.

Reference check questions give you the opportunity to confirm information on the candidate’s resume. You can also ask questions regarding the applicant’s individual performance and work ethic. Ideally, you’ll use at least one carefully constructed open-ended question to gain insight that goes beyond a simple yes or no response. For example, you could ask, “Can you give me an example of a time when the job candidate went above and beyond to complete a project?”

Regardless of the exact questions you ask each professional and personal reference, your ultimate goal is to get a better feel for whether or not the job candidate’s resume was truthful and if they’d be a good fit for your team. 

Keep in mind that the questions you ask can only go so far because most previous employers and professional references aren’t going to say anything that could potentially get them into legal trouble. Despite this issue, you can learn a lot from uncomfortable pauses and overly generic responses.

How to Verify References During a Background Check

Most job candidates have honed their reference list to include previous bosses and co-workers who will say positive things about them. 

This is to be expected, and as long as the feedback is truthful, it makes perfect sense for them to take this approach. However, you need to ensure that each of the references is legitimate. Otherwise, you could get a so-called business reference from their mother or best friend.

Here are a couple of tips that will ensure you’re actually speaking to the right person:

1. Ask for Business Numbers

Yes, everyone has a cell phone. No, that doesn’t mean that you have to accept a list of job references that only contains cell phone numbers. Ask for their business line, but offer to let the applicant include the reference’s cell number as well. This will make it easier to use Google to your advantage. Look up the business number and make sure it’s connected to the company in question.

Next, even if you know the previous boss or human resources supervisor isn’t going to be in the office, call their business number. This way you can confirm that they really work there before calling their business phone.

2. Use LinkedIn to Research References

Did you only receive a cell number or an email address? Head to LinkedIn (other social media sites can be helpful too). A quick search on LinkedIn should help you determine with a higher level of certainty whether or not the reference is legitimate. 

As an added bonus, LinkedIn can provide a lot of information about the candidate’s resume. Check their profile to see if job titles and other details match.

Questions to Ask References

You’ve verified that a reference is the real deal and you’re ready to call them. Although this won’t be the same thing as a phone interview with a job applicant, you’ll still want to use some of the same skills such as listening more than you speak and fact checking information on the candidate’s resume. 

Additionally, it’s wise to have all of your questions for references prepared in advance, but don’t be afraid to ask follow up questions based on information provided during the call.

It will useful to have a standard list of reference questions printed out, along with enough space to take notes about each answer. Keep in mind that most references are busy and won’t want to give you more than five minutes, so it’s critical to ask about anything specific you need to confirm early on. Other than that, here are a few suggestions that can help you get necessary answers from previous employers and other references.

1. Confirm the Basic Details

If the job candidate’s resume indicates that John Smith was their supervisor at XYZ Company for five years, you need to start by verifying these details. You will boost your odds of getting an honest response by saying, “John Smith listed you as a professional reference. How did you meet him?”

If they confirm the company’s name and business relationship, follow up with, “How long did he work there?” and “What was his job title?” Keep in mind that these details may not be at the forefront of the reference’s mind, so allow a little margin for error.

2. Open-Ended Questions Are Your Friend

As previously mentioned, open-ended questions can help you learn a lot more information about the prospective employee. Here are a few examples:

  • How well did he/she handle conflict?

  • What are his/her strongest and weakest qualities?

  • How well did he/she respond to criticism? Did she/he learn from fair critiques and make adjustments?

  • Can you tell me how he/she fit into a team environment?

  • What was his/her most notable accomplishment for your company?

  • How effective was he/she at his/her job?

3. Fact-Finding Questions

Confirming basic candidate resume details and getting a stronger sense of who the applicant is through open-ended questions is a great place to start. If the candidate’s reference is still willing to answer questions at this stage, you can choose a few more fact-finding questions. Most of these will be answered with a yes or no, but you can always prompt the respondent to elaborate.

  • Would you hire him/her again?

  • Why did he/she leave your company? If they haven’t left yet, were you aware he/she is looking for a new job?

  • Did he/she get along well with co-workers and supervisors?

  • Did he/she have a good attendance record?

  • Did he/she typically show up on time and prepared to start work?

  • Were there any issues with his/her performance that required disciplinary action?

  • Was she/he promoted during their time with your company?

4. Adjustments for a Management Position

Make sure to adjust your reference and interview questions for a manager position. For instance, you may want to ask a professional reference how the prospective employee handled conflicts that arose between their team members as opposed to the more generic question about handling conflict. You could also learn a lot by asking how successful they were at keeping their team on task.

5. End with This Question

A great way to end each reference check interview is by asking the respondent one simple question:

Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?

Most people won’t take this bait and will simply end the conversation. However, if you get someone who has loose lips or spare time to talk, you might get some useful information about the job applicant.

How to Respond to a Reference Request to Avoid Legal Trouble

Keep in mind that when it’s your turn to respond to reference check questions, you should protect yourself legally by never saying anything that could be seen as slander. Stick to the facts and steer clear of opinions. This is always a wise course of action when you’re answering reference check questions and filling out employment verification letters.

Building the Right Team

Reference check questions are only one component of the overall interviewing and hiring process, but they can help ensure that you find the right fit for the open job title and your team. Whether you have a small or large business, hiring the right people will have a major impact on your overall success. 

Paul Peters
Paul Peters
Wordsmith for Betterteam.