In This Article


What Reference Check Questions Can I Ask? [With Examples]


Before extending a job offer to a candidate, you’ll want to check his or her references.

Why is this important?

Asking the right reference check questions can provide you with a better understanding of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses while allowing you to verify any claims he or she might have made during the interview.

Some companies find the process of checking references to be unhelpful because they do not have an appropriate structure in place.

To help you get more out of your reference checks, we’ve put together this guide for hiring managers.

Let’s get started.

What Is a Reference Check?

A reference check involves contacting your applicant’s former co-workers, supervisors, and educators to confirm the claims he or she has made and to gain additional information about his or her character, work ethic, abilities, and skills.

Why Should I Check References?

Checking a candidate’s references allows you to:

  • Identify red flags based on a candidate’s past behavior.
  • Confirm skills and facts a candidate has claimed in an interview by speaking with past supervisors.
  • Understand the applicant’s attitude, work ethic, communication skills, and dependability.
  • Verify the candidate’s employment information as provided on his or her resume, including employment dates and job duties.

What you can expect from a reference check will depend on how you structure your request for references and the questions you ask.

If your process and questions are unstructured, you won’t gain much value from a reference check.

By contrast, if you have a structured process and great questions to ask in place, you can expect to glean valuable information about your candidate’s work ethic and what he or she might bring to the table at your company.

While a reference check cannot replace employment verification, it can add more information to help you gain a better understanding of an applicant’s competencies.

When Should I Contact References?

If you are considering offering a candidate a job, conducting a reference check can provide you with additional information to consider before making a final hiring decision.

The best time to contact references is after you have interviewed a candidate as a component of a pre-employment background check.

Some of the sources you can tap when conducting a reference check include the applicant’s previous supervisors, co-workers, and letters of recommendation.

In addition to these potential sources, you should also conduct an education verification, license verification, employment verification, and other types of background screens to gain a comprehensive picture of the candidate as they apply to the role for which you are hiring.

37 Important Questions You Should Ask References

It’s critical to know what information to ask during a reference check.

It’s also equally important to ensure that your questions comply with the requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and other relevant employment screening laws.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of questions you might ask a candidate’s references.

In the interest of the reference’s time, it’s best to choose the ones that are the most valuable for your hiring needs.

9 Initial Reference Check Questions

The first thing you need to do is to confirm that you are speaking to the right person.

Some applicants ask friends or relatives to pose as former supervisors and provide glowing references.

Ask your candidate to provide you with the names and contact information of current or past supervisors.

Once you have identified and reached the right references, here are some initial questions you might ask:

  1. What is the nature of your professional relationship with the applicant, and when did it start?
  2. Can you confirm the candidate’s employment start and end dates, job duties, and title?
  3. What types of information can you provide to me about the candidate under your company’s policy?
  4. Can you provide me with the names of former employees who worked closely with the applicant who can provide information if you can’t?
  5. What is your current role at the company, and how long have you held it?
  6. What positions did you hold while working with the candidate?
  7. How long did you work with the candidate?
  8. Did you have any personal conflicts with the candidate?
  9. Is there anyone else I should speak to about the candidate?

7 Questions to Understand the Candidate’s Job Performance

Past supervisors and managers can provide important insight into a candidate’s work ethic and capabilities.

However, it’s important to make sure the reference spent sufficient time working with the candidate.

Here are a few questions that can help you understand a candidate’s performance at a past job and how it might translate into his or her work at your company:

  1. What positions did the candidate hold, and did he or she receive any promotions?
  2. What duties did the candidate have to perform as a part of his or her job?
  3.  Can you tell me about the candidate’s ability to make independent decisions in his or her job, and how he or she handled that authority?
  4. What were the most challenging parts of the position the candidate held and the work he or she did?
  5. Can you tell me about a time when the candidate faced a stressful work situation and how he or she handled it?
  6. What are the strengths of the candidate, and how did he or she use them to benefit your company?
  7. What types of challenges does the client have and areas in which he or she needs to improve?

5 Reference Check Questions to Ask a Previous Manager

When you are talking to a candidate’s former manager, you will want to determine the length of their relationship and how the candidate performed.

Some of the potential questions to ask a former manager include the following:

  1. How long was the candidate under your supervision?
  2. Were you the candidate’s direct supervisor?
  3. Can you explain the candidate’s professional growth while he or she was under your supervision?
  4. Did you have any challenges with managing the candidate, and can you explain them?
  5. Can you provide any advice about how the candidate could be successfully managed?

5 Reference Check Questions for a Candidate’s Previous Supervisees

If you are considering a candidate for a supervisory position, it’s a good idea to check with former employees who used to report to him or her.

This can give you an idea of the candidate’s management style and help to ensure that he or she is a good fit for your company.

Here are some questions you might ask of a candidate’s previous supervisees:

  1. How long were you supervised by the candidate, and what was his or her position?
  2. Did the candidate’s supervision and mentorship of you help you to grow professionally, and if so, how?
  3. What were the easiest and most difficult aspects of being supervised by the candidate?
  4. How did the candidate foster a cohesive, collaborative work environment?
  5. Do you have any advice about how the candidate could be a more effective manager?

6 Questions to Ask a Candidate’s Coworkers

You want to find a candidate who gets along well with others and has excellent communication skills.

Asking a candidate’s current or former coworkers about their experiences working with him or her can help you understand how he or she might fit into your company’s work culture.

Here are some potential questions to ask a candidate’s coworkers:

  1. How long did you work with the candidate, and in what role?
  2. Did working with the candidate help you grow professionally?
  3. Was the candidate able to work together with others on projects well?
  4. What were the best and most difficult aspects of working with the candidate?
  5. Did the candidate support others on the job?
  6. What advice could you give to the candidate’s future coworkers about how to work effectively with him or her?

5 Questions to Vet a Candidate’s Work Ethics and Behavior

Vetting a candidate’s work ethics and behavior in the workplace is important for maintaining a positive work environment.

Here are some questions you might ask:

  1. What was the reason the candidate left your company?
  2. Did the candidate have any conduct issues while working at your company, and if so, can you explain them?
  3. How well did the candidate work with others?
  4. Did the candidate consistently arrive on time?
  5. Is the candidate eligible for rehire, and if so, would you hire him or her again?

What You Shouldn’t Ask During a Reference Check

There are certain topics you should avoid when conducting reference checks.

For one, you should never ask about a candidate’s age, race, national origin, familial status, disability status, gender, sexual orientation, and other types of information about a candidate’s protected characteristics as this would violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Some states also prohibit asking about a candidate’s salary history.

Make sure that you understand the laws in your state when creating your list of reference check questions.

10 Smart Tips for Checking References

Keep the following tips in mind when checking references:

1. Inform the Candidate In Advance That You Plan to Check References.

When you are checking references, you must comply with the FCRA, Title VII, and applicable state laws.

If you violate the law, you could face penalties, fines, and potential lawsuits.

You should tell all applicants in advance that you plan to check references as a part of your employment background check process.

The FCRA also requires you to notify applicants that you intend to conduct background checks and secure their signed authorization to do so.

Telling applicants that you will conduct a background check and check their references is a good way to screen out applicants who have problematic backgrounds.

Applicants who know that you will check their background information and references also might be more honest during their interviews.

2. Take Detailed Notes During Your Reference Checks.

When you are talking to a candidate’s references, be sure to take detailed notes about the information they report. This is especially important when you are talking to multiple references to help you keep the information you receive organized.

You might need to refer to your notes later when you are evaluating the candidate, and the notes you take can also be important if you decide against hiring him or her.

Make sure to check at least two references that include the candidate’s most recent supervisors. This allows you to compare the information you receive.

If one is good and the other is lukewarm, you can check the third reference before making your final hiring decision.

3. Check References by Telephone Instead of Email.

Calling a candidate’s past references instead of contacting them by email allows you to accurately interpret the meaning of what they say through verbal cues.

When you check references by email, you won’t be able to hear the reference’s vocal inflection and tone, which can result in you missing out on potential red flags.

References typically won’t report negative information in writing because of potential liability.

It is also easier to determine whether a reference is truly positive about an applicant by phone instead of email.

4. Begin by Asking Easy Questions.

It is best to start by asking easy questions such as how long the reference worked with your candidate.

Starting with easy questions helps you to build rapport with the reference so that he or she will feel more comfortable answering more difficult questions.

5. Check the Candidate’s Employment Dates.

When you are talking to a candidate’s former supervisor, make sure that the dates the candidate reported on the resume conform to the dates the supervisor reports.

This can help reveal whether a candidate has fudged his or her employment dates to make it appear as if he or she has more experience.

6. Check Publicly Available Online Content.

It is important to note that most states prohibit employers from asking candidates for their social media information, including their usernames, passwords, or other account information.

Many states also prohibit employers from asking candidates to add them as friends or to open their social media pages in their presence.

However, you can check online for publicly available information, including a candidate’s LinkedIn profile and any public social media posts.

If you do check online, make sure that you do not base your hiring decisions on information you discover online that might violate the FCRA, Title VII, or the relevant employment laws in your state.

7. Ask Open-Ended Questions.

Try to ask as many open-ended questions as possible when speaking with a candidate’s references. Avoid asking questions that can be answered in a vague way or with yes or no answers.

Asking open-ended questions might help you to gain more information about the candidate.

8. Tell the Reference You will Keep Your Conversation Confidential.

Telling a reference upfront that you will keep the conversation confidential might make a previous supervisor more likely to be open with you.

Many former supervisors hesitate to talk about their experiences with former employees because of a fear that what they say will be passed on to the candidates.

9. Watch For Fake References.

Make sure to watch for fake references. Some candidates that have had problems while working for former employers will provide fake supervisor references by stating that former coworkers supervised them or providing a list of references that are friends or relatives.

10. Contacting Personal References.

If a candidate has provided personal references, be aware that personal references will usually only provide glowing information about a candidate.

iprospectcheck is Your Trusted Employment Screening Partner of Choice

At iprospectcheck, we stand ready to serve you with a complete range of employment screening services so that you can make smarter hiring decisions. We provide background checks, as well as verification and clinical services.

Learn more about our employment screening services by calling us today (888) 808-9997

DISCLAIMER: The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Consult your counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

Know Before You Hire

About the Author
Matthew J. Rodgers

Matthew J. Rodgers

Matthew J. Rodgers is a highly accomplished business executive with over 30 years of experience providing strategic vision and leadership to companies ranging from the fortune 500 to iprospectcheck, a company which he co-founded over a decade ago. Matthew is a valued consultant who is dedicated to helping companies create and implement efficient, cost effective and compliant employment screening programs. Matt has been a member of the Professional Background Screeners Association since 2009 . When not focused on iprospectcheck, he can be found spending time with his family, fly fishing, or occasionally running the wild rivers of the American west. A lifetime member of American Whitewater, Matt is passionate about protecting and restoring America’s whitewater rivers.