The questions you need to be asking in a reference check

For all candidates, try to get three references, including the most recent supervisor, whose input will likely carry the most weight with the hiring team.

In some cases, references may be authorised by their organisations to answer only standard questions, or you may be transferred to the HR department. When that happens, your purpose is to confirm the basics of the candidate’s background. Ask the following questions:

  • What were the candidate starting and leaving dates?
  • What was the candidate’s end salary?
  • What were the candidate’s most recent job titles, supervisors, and departments?
  • Would your organisation re-hire the candidate?  If not why?

Do not ask questions about the candidate’s job performance, probe beyond the answers you are given or ask the reference to make any judgement calls.

For references that can speak freely, the idea is to get a complete picture of the candidate and resolve any open questions.

Keep the conversation flowing using these questions:

  • What was your relationship with the candidate?
  • How long was this working relationship?
  • What were the candidate’s job duties and performance objectives?
  • What was the candidate’s salary, including bonuses and performance incentives?
  • What unique skills, knowledge, competencies, and strengths did the candidate contribute to your organisation?
  • What was their impact on the success of your organisation?
  • What new skills, knowledge, and competencies did the candidate develop while working in your organisation?
  • How successful was the candidate in their previous roles in your organisation?
  • How did teammates and colleagues like working with the candidate?
  • What are some of the growth areas for the candidate? How did the candidate do in developing in these growth areas?
  • Was the candidate ever subject to disciplinary action? What were the circumstances and the outcome?
  • We are committed to helping the candidate succeed in their new role and grow in their career. What would you say the candidate needs most to be successful in their new position?
  • Would you and your colleagues want to work with the candidate again?
  • Is there anything else that would be worthwhile for us to know about the candidate?

If the reference is a former manager or supervisor of the candidate, be sure to ask these questions:

  • How large was the team that the candidate was a part of?
  • Is the candidate one of the top performers of the team?
  • What are the candidate’s most notable accomplishments in your organisation?
  • Did the candidate receive any promotions or salary increases?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s communication skills? How does the candidate treat peers, senior management, clients, customers, partners, etc.?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s teamwork skills? Are they seen as a leader or a go-to person? How well do they take ownership of tasks, projects, and situations?
  • How does the candidate do with deliverables? Are they done on-time, and ready to use by the next person?
  • What are some of the growth areas for the candidate? How did the candidate do in developing in these growth areas?
  • Would you and your colleagues want to work with the candidate again? Would you want to supervise the candidate again?
  • What do you feel the candidate needs to be successful in their new role?
  • Is there anything else that would be worthwhile for us to know about the candidate?
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