10 Common Reference Check Questions:
1. How do you know the job candidate?
This serves to verify who you're speaking with and in what relationship they stood to the candidate in question, which in turn will also help you determine how to judge the information they give you about the candidate. As a reference, individuals who had a professional relationship with the candidate are preferable.
While a former colleague in a supervisory role can help give insight into the candidate's work-related skills, behavior, and past performance, the information provided by someone who has a personal relationship with the candidate may not be as useful to gauge their suitability in a professional capacity.
Red flag: The person providing the reference does not know the candidate well.
2. How long was the candidate in your employment?
This question serves to validate the information provided by the candidate regarding their term of employment at a former place of work. If the time the candidate worked at a company is very short, such as one or two months only, it may be worth asking about this.
Red flags: The dates provided differ significantly from what the candidate has on their resume.
3. What were their day-to-day duties?
This question is used to verify the roles and responsibilities the candidate listed in their resume. You may find out about more tasks the candidate didn't include in favor of brevity or, conversely, realize that they exaggerated the scope and demands of their role. However, some variance in accounts may simply be due to memory lapse.
Red flag: There is a significant difference between the duties listed in the resume and those described by the person providing the reference.
4. What were the performance strengths of the candidate?
Finding out about the candidate's strengths can help determine what they can offer the company, whether they are a good fit for the job, and in which areas they are likely to excel.
Red flag: The person providing the reference cannot pinpoint any performance strengths.
5. What were the performance weaknesses of the candidate?
With this question, hiring managers can learn about any skills gaps that could be problematic for the position or any areas that the candidate may need to work on.
Red flags: The performance weakness provided by the reference presents a significant risk to the company.
6. Did this candidate have any major accomplishments while in your employ?
On the one hand, this question is used to verify any claims the candidate made on their resume or during the interview about any achievements at their previous workplace. On the other, it serves to get a better understanding of the individual's performance track record, particularly if they have been modest about their accomplishments.
Red flags: The account of the person providing the reference grossly contradicts that of the candidate.
7. Would you describe the candidate as dependable?
As reliability and dependability are key traits employers look for in their employees, it is worth asking about and, if possible, learning about specific instances in which the candidate did or did not portray these qualities.
Red flags: The person providing the reference paints a picture of a notoriously unreliable and undependable individual.
8. Why did the candidate leave your company?
Asking about the reason a candidate left a previous workplace is another verification question that employers use to check the accuracy of the information provided by the candidate.
Red flags: The candidate was not open and honest about their reason for leaving a previous employer.
9. Would you hire this candidate again?
This is a great question to include toward the end of a call. If the reference responds immediately and positively, this is a good indication of the candidate's potential for being a valuable asset to a team. However, if there is some hesitation in answering this one, it's not a deal breaker, but it is best to find out why it gave the reference pause.
Red flags: The person providing the reference responds negatively and refuses to elaborate why.
10. Is there anything else that I should know about this candidate?
Asking a vague, open question gives the reference contact an opportunity to share anything they feel would be of value to the candidate's future employer and can provide additional insight into the candidate's character, attitude, and potential to succeed.
Red flags: The person providing the reference mentions qualities and instances that reflect poorly on the candidate.
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.
Also, remember that the supervisor you call is likely to be busy, and may not have all the details of the candidate's employment at their fingertips. There may be some discrepancies in the information they give you, but it doesn't necessarily mean that your candidate lied.
Tips for Checking References:
1. Ask for business and cell phone numbers.
While a cell number might be best for reaching someone, a business number is better for confirming that the reference really works at a company. Ask candidates to give a business line for each reference, and offer to let them include the reference’s cell number. Google the business number and make sure it’s connected to the company in question.
2. Call the business number, even if you have the cell number.
Even if you know the previous supervisor or human resources manager 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.
3. Use LinkedIn to research references.
Did you only receive a cell number or an email address? Head to LinkedIn to confirm the reference. A quick search on LinkedIn should help you determine with a higher level of certainty whether or not the reference is legitimate.
4. Send a warm-up email or a LinkedIn InMail.
Don't just cold-call references and interrupt their day. Try emailing them or contacting them through LinkedIn's email service. You can use a tool like Calendly to make it easy for them to schedule a time with you.
5. Take notes on your reference calls.
Ideally, you keep all your notes together on each candidate — everything from what happens in interviews to references. It makes it easy to sit down and review the whole picture before making a final decision, and helps make sure you remember everything you should be taking into account.
6. Don't just talk to managers and supervisors.
Try getting the thoughts of their peers too. It'll help you get a broader picture of the candidate, and what they're like to work with.