25 Reference Questions That Reveal the Truth About Job Seekers

You'll learn all kinds of things about your candidates in a job interview—but not everything. In a recent survey, ResumeLab found that 52% of job seekers embellish the responsibilities listed on their resume and 44% admit to frequently bending the truth during interviews. This is where their work references come in handy.

Reference checks are more than just a formality. Speaking with a few people from your candidates' network helps you create a more complete picture of what they've accomplished, what they're capable of in a new role, and how well they'll fit into your organization.
Between meeting with your candidate in an interview and touching base with other people who know them, you can increase your chances of securing the best people to fill vital roles in your business.

BambooHR provides hiring tools that help HR teams manage every part of the talent acquisition process without skipping a beat. In this article, we'll discuss how to do a reference check and how asking the right questions can help you figure out what you need to know.

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What Is a Reference Check?

A reference check is the part of the hiring process that involves contacting your top candidates' former employers, managers, colleagues, and other individuals. It's similar to a pre-employment background check but usually provides more than just basic facts—it helps you learn more about your top candidate's work experiences, skills, and character. As a hiring manager, your goals for reference checking should be the following:

25 Best Questions to Ask References

Since job references are hand-picked by your candidates, they'll probably be ready with a host of positive comments to share. Plan to ask a variety of targeted questions to get to know your potential hire a little better. To help you get started, here are 25 of the best questions to ask.

General reference check questions about employment history:

  1. Can you please confirm [Candidate's] job title and employment dates at your company?
  2. What is your relationship with this person?
  3. How long did you work together?
  4. What was their reason for leaving your organization?

Questions to ask references about a candidate's past job performance:

  1. What were some of this employee's key strengths at your company?
  2. How would you describe their quality of work?
  3. How well does [Candidate] handle challenges? Please provide an example.
  4. What was this employee's biggest accomplishment at your company?
  5. Did this employee achieve a healthy remote-work balance between handling their duties and keeping supervisors/peers updated? Please describe.
  6. Can you think of a time when this employee went above and beyond in their role?

Questions to ask when checking references for leadership positions:

  1. How would you describe this person's management style?
  2. In what ways did this person support or mentor their teammates?
  3. How do you think [Candidate's] direct reports would describe them?
  4. How does [Candidate] handle conflict or disagreements? Please give an example.
  5. What makes this person stand out among their colleagues?
  6. Can you identify any areas this person could work on to become a stronger leader or team member?

Questions to ask references about a job candidate's work habits:

  1. What's this person's communication style?
  2. Does this person work well in a team or independently?
  3. How does this employee typically interact with management, coworkers, and clients?
  4. Has this person influenced your company culture in any way?
  5. How does this employee handle manager feedback or constructive criticism?
  6. How do they handle last-minute changes or breaks in routine?

Open-ended employment reference check questions:

  1. Can you tell me something about this person that might not be listed on their resume (e.g., volunteer work, hobbies, great attitude)?
  2. Is there anything else you would like to offer to help us better understand [Candidate]?
  3. If the opportunity arose, would you rehire this employee? Why (or why not)?

5 Questions You Cannot Ask References

Keep in mind that reference check questions should be job related. Otherwise, the conversation could cross into inappropriate or discriminatory territory.

For instance, here are five questions you should never ask during a reference check:

  1. Is this person a US citizen?
  2. Are they married and/or do they have children?
  3. How much did you pay this employee at your company?
  4. Does this person have any medical issues or disabilities?
  5. How old is this person?

These and other personal topics could indicate your intent to choose a candidate based on unlawful hiring practices. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants based on age, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other protected characteristics.

Also, certain state laws and private company policies may dictate what an employer can and cannot disclose about former employees. This means a reference may be unable to discuss anything other than specific employment dates, roles within the company, and eligibility for rehire. Rules like this are designed to help protect employers from liability, prevent other forms of discrimination, promote pay equity, and more.

If a reference legally can't disclose the information you want to know, it shouldn't reflect negatively on your potential hire. In this case, you can simply rely on what you've learned directly from the applicant during the interview phase.

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How to Ask for References

Upon request, a candidate should be able to provide the contact information for a handful of people they know. However, be specific about who you'd like to speak with. The four common types of references include:

It's usually best practice to get permission before contacting generic references listed on a resume and avoid reaching out to anyone from their current workplace. Also, always assume your candidate will speak with their references afterward—try not to disclose anything you wouldn't want your candidate to know, too.

When Do Employers Call References?

Employers typically reach out to a candidate's references just before extending a job offer. By this time, you've reviewed the candidate's resume, interviewed them at least once, and you're looking for more information before making a final decision.

How Long Do Reference Checks Take?

Employment referencing could take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. It all depends on how soon an applicant's contacts can speak with you or answer your questions via email. If you can get them on the phone, this conversation usually only lasts about 10 to 15 minutes per person.

Do Employers Check References for Multiple Candidates?

As a hiring manager, you may interview several candidates for a single open position that all seem like good options on paper. Doing pre-employment reference checks for multiple candidates will help you narrow down your talent pool from a few top prospects to the one who's best suited for the job.

Reference Check Email Template

Email Subject Line: Reference Check for [Candidate]

Dear [Reference's Name],

My name is [Your Name], and I'm the [Your Job Title] at [Your Company]. I'm reaching out because we recently interviewed [Candidate's Name] for [Job Title] and they listed you as a professional reference. I was hoping you could share your experience in working with [Candidate's Name] at your organization to help us determine if they're a good fit for our open role. Specifically, this is the information we'd like to learn more about:

Feel free to respond via email or over the phone at [XXX-XXX-XXXX]. We appreciate your time in completing this reference check and welcome any other insights into [Candidate's Name] that would help us make an informed hiring decision!

Thank you,

[Your Name]

How Many References Should You Have?

Most employers request three or four references. To ensure you can get in touch with them easily, ask your candidate to include the following for each person on their reference list:

This information will also help you discern fake references from credible sources and take detailed notes about your conversations in your applicant tracking system (ATS). After reviewing what you've learned about your top candidates, you should be able to select a new hire that fits your organization well.

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