Hiring is a necessary process for all firms to function and thrive. But even more so for small and medium businesses where hiring costs can be much too high to keep repeating the process endlessly. 

One of the best ways to find out if a candidate is a good fit for your organization would be to conduct a reference check by speaking to colleagues or managers in their previous organizations. A successful one means asking the right reference check questions to the right people while keeping them comfortable enough to answer them candidly. 

A negative reference check can be an excellent reason to take a candidate out of the running. But we must also go out of our way to find out if the interviewee has any inherent biases clouding their judgment. 

It is essential to have a strategy and a set of reference questions that can be altered for each candidate and designation. This article will discuss everything from reference check questions, writing a reference check email, sample reference check questions, and even questions to ask personal references. 

What is a reference check?


A reference check is a way to check the background of a candidate you consider a potential hire. While an interview and assignment can gauge the professional potential, a reference check can bring to the fore any past hiccups that may have gone unnoticed otherwise. A reference check can also help uncover any serious ethical violations in the candidate’s past organizations.  

All in all, a reference check may be referred to as a background check wherein the prospective employer shuffles the past contacts of the prospective employee to figure out whether or not the latter would fit in the organization. However, there is one fine line of difference between a reference check and a background check. While a reference check is more focused on acquiring an insight into the candidate’s knowledge, a background check leans towards knowing about credentials and experience.

A reference check can be done in various forms; a reference check email, a telephonic conversation, or even a meeting. Whatever the mode, the goal should be the same; discovering more about the candidate. Asking the right reference check questions will make sure that happens.

A reference check is conducted after the interview, just before the employer will extend the job offer to the candidate. It is the penultimate stage, which is a crucial part of the hiring process.

Why is asking the right reference check questions important?

While conducting job interviews is an arduous task in its own right, asking the right reference check questions is another important facet of the hiring process. That is because reference questions reveal certain important information regarding the candidate’s ethics and performance, which may otherwise have been either omitted or concealed during the interview.

Here are a few reasons why asking the right reference check questions is essential before hiring:

  • Knowing the right questions to ask references enables you to spot the red flags, if any, in the candidate’s profile. The red flags are usually in the form of inappropriate past behavior, professional or personal
  • Reference check questions also help the employer find out the candidate’s compatibility with the previous employer and team
  • It is also an excellent way to confirm the information already provided by the candidate
  • Not only this, reference check and its correct documentation also serve as a piece of concrete evidence, just in case the organization decides not to hire the person and the latter wishes to pursue legal action in the form of a hiring negligence claim

Overall, it is vital to conduct a reference check and ask the right questions. It provides objective information that helps in the hiring process and avoids hiring the wrong candidate.

What are the difficulties that may be faced while asking the right reference check questions?

Reference check questions are essential, but it is also important to frame them correctly. Otherwise, it is a wasteful exercise. The main goal is to determine whether the candidate is a good fit as a potential hire. If that is not fulfilled, no matter how good the reference check questions are, they fail to serve their purpose. 

But, asking the right reference check questions can also be a task and comes with its own set of challenges. Here are a few to look out for:

  • Firstly, each candidate is prepared. They know that they will be asked for a reference and will only provide the best sources; those they know will tip the scales in their favor. Such sources may suffer from unconscious bias and provide inaccurate information.
  • References can lie, too, especially if they turn out to be candidate’s friends. In today’s linear hierarchy system wherein there is a fine line between the manager and the subordinate, this is entirely possible.
  • Another point to consider is when the candidate requests discretion because they may be leaving the previous company without their knowledge due to some or other reasons. In such a case, conducting a reference check without raising suspicions is extremely difficult.
  • There is also a chance of the previous/current employer providing the candidate with a counteroffer, thus leading you to lose the candidate and rendering the whole hiring and reference check process redundant.

While you may be ready to frame the right reference check policy and may ask the right reference check questions, you have to be prepared for the risks.  

Do’s and Don’ts of reference questions

These questions ensure that you conduct the check-in in a fair and right manner so that it achieves its objective, making sure that the candidate has the potential to be an employee.

Here are a few things to do while asking reference questions:

  • A review of the candidate’s profile and verification and confirmation of all that’s written therein
  • Document all the information you receive via a reference check
  • Knowing what questions to ask references is a talent as well. Ensure that the questions pertain to the candidate’s relationship with the reference and the nature of projects they work on together
  • While sending a reference check email is useful for initial communication, it is better to contact the reference in person or on the telephone

Here are a few things that you should avoid while asking reference check questions:

  • No judgments on superficial parameters such as the employee’s appearance
  • Do not connect with one reference and form a snap judgment. The whole point is to connect with multiple references and create a collated report to reach a precise overview of the candidate. 
  • Ensure that all the information is confidential and there is no leak of any information concerning the candidate’s profile and reference data. The candidate has the right to privacy, and rightly so.

It is essential to keep the points mentioned above in mind while deciding what questions to ask references. Reference checks should not turn out to be a traumatic experience for the candidate.

Questions to ask references: A handy checklist

Reference check questions can be many. However, the main question is: what questions to ask when checking references? This may look like an easy feat but can be quite tricky. From professional reference questions to questions to ask personal references, it covers various facets to cover the candidate’s entire persona.

Here are a few reference check questions to ease the job. You can then use these to create your reference check questions template, depending upon the industry and designation.

Reference Check Questions on their Personal Equation

Question #1: What was it like working with the candidate?

Question #2: Would you rehire the candidate again? Why or why not?

Question #3: Is there something about the candidate that I should know and is not there on their resume?

Question #4: Do you have any advice on how to manage the candidate effectively?

Question #5: If you had to rate the candidate on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate them?

Question #6: What was the reason for the candidate to leave your organization?

Reference Check Questions on SWOT

Question #7: What are the greatest strengths of the candidate?

Question #8: What are their weaknesses? Have they made any in-roads in improving on any of them?

Question #9: Is there any specific area where they would need additional support in the first quarter?

Question #10: *Describe the job you’re hiring for* Do you think the candidate will be a good fit?

Question #11: What were the major accomplishments of the candidate while working with you?

Question #12: How would you describe the communication skills of the candidate?

Question #13: Do you have any anecdotes where the candidate displayed their the emotional intelligence?

Reference Check Questions to Wind Down

Question #14: How did the candidate conduct themself in office?

Question #15: Is there anything else that you would like to share about the candidate?

Question #16: Do you have any other references who can help me understand the candidate better?

Do you need to ask reference check questions?

Conducting a reference check and asking the right questions is essential because it gives you an insight into the candidate’s behavior from the people who have already worked with them. While there are a few challenges, with sufficient references, you can normalize the results.  

Do you have a comprehensive reference check policy in place? What are the questions you ask? Let’s discuss @HarmonizeHQ.