The Ultimate Guide to Employee Reference Checks: Questions to Ask for a Winning Hire

The Ultimate Guide to Employee Reference Checks: Questions to Ask for a Winning Hire

The Ultimate Guide to Employee Reference Checks: Questions to Ask for a Winning Hire

Let's face it: exaggerating a résumé or CV is more common than we'd like to believe. Some applicants may exaggerate their responsibilities in order to land their dream job, but this strategy can backfire on both the candidate and the employer.

The good news? There are steps you can take to check a candidate's credentials. Employee reference checks, which involve contacting former employers and coworkers, can be an effective method for determining a candidate's skills and experience.

But what kind of questions should you ask during a background check process, specifically the job reference portion?

What is meant by Employee Reference Checks?

Assume you're interviewing a candidate who appears to be an ideal fit for the position. Their résumé showcases remarkable abilities and experiences. But can you be confident that what they've listed is correct?

This is where reference checks come in. It's the process of contacting the references provided by a job applicant – usually past managers or supervisors. Talking to these people provides significant insights beyond the resume. You have a better grasp of the candidate's work ethic, attitude, and behaviour in previous roles.

It allows you to validate the abilities and expertise listed on the CV. Did the candidate actually lead a team, or were they just a member of a broader group? Did they consistently meet deadlines, or were they known for last-minute scrambles?

When to Conduct Reference Checks?

So you've narrowed down the applicant pool and found a few promising candidates. Now comes the critical stage of verifying their qualifications: the reference check.

The time of this check may differ depending on your company's hiring policies. There are two common approaches:

  • Shortlist Scrutiny: Many employers choose to do reference checks after narrowing down their top two or three prospects. This enables for a more detailed comparison before making a final decision.
  • Top Contender Confirmation: Some companies reserve employee reference checks for their absolute frontrunner. This final verification occurs just prior to extending the official job offer.

Regardless of your preferred strategy, one thing is certain: reference checks are strongly advised before finalizing a hire. They provide crucial information that can help you avoid costly mistakes and hire the most qualified individual.

Why Employee Reference Checks Matter?

Talking to former employers and supervisors provides a more complete picture of the candidate, going much beyond the information on paper.

Here's a breakdown of the main advantages of performing reference checks:

  • Unveiling the Skillset: Resumes can be light on specifics. In contrast, a reference check allows you to go deeper. You can inquire how well the applicant completed a specific function, such as "advising customers on service issues." Did they have the knowledge and communication skills to flourish in this field?

  • Working Style Wisdom: Not everybody thrives under pressure. Do your candidates crumple or stay cool and collected? Are they autonomous go-getters or team players that excel at collaboration? Reference checks can provide insight into their working style, allowing you to assess whether they'll be a good fit for your corporate culture.

  • Communication Check: Effective communication and interpersonal skills are required for developing strong working partnerships. By asking references about how the candidate addressed workplace problems, you can assess their ability to communicate effectively and negotiate interpersonal challenges.

  • Identifying red flags and mitigating risks: Sometimes resumes do not reveal the entire story. Why did the candidate leave their former position? Was it due to a genuine desire for fresh experiences, or were there performance or behavioural issues? Reference checks can help identify these "red flags," allowing you to make more informed hiring decisions and reduce the risk of a bad fit.

Essential Reference Check Questions for Hiring With Confidence

The particular questions you ask will depend on the industry and the position you're filling. However, here's a useful set of reference check questions to consider:

Warm Up Questions

  • Gaining Insight about the Relationship: "In what role did you work with [Candidate Name]?" with the question "How long did your professional relationship last?" These initial questions determine the reference's acquaintance with the candidate.

  • Verifying the Essentials: "Could you please confirm [Candidate Name]'s job title, responsibilities, and duration of employment at your company?" This guarantees that the resume's content corresponds with the reference's recollection.

Diving deeper

  • Responsibilities and Performance: "Can you describe [Candidate Name]'s primary duties and daily tasks?" and "How would you assess the quality and consistency of their work? Were they dependable? Did they achieve deadlines?" These questions go beyond the CV to uncover a candidate's work ethic and capacity to produce outcomes.

  • Achievements and Challenges: "Did [Candidate Name] receive any awards, recognition, or promotions during their time with you?" and "Can you recall a specific incident in which they had a substantial work challenge? What was the outcome, and how did they respond?” Determine the candidate's problem-solving abilities, resilience, and potential for advancement.

  • Feedback and Supervision: "How has [Candidate Name] typically responded to feedback?" with the question "In your observation, would you say they worked well independently or did they require more supervision?" The answers to these questions reveal how coachable and capable the applicant is at handling their workload.

  • Skill Development: "Is there a particular area where you noticed significant improvement in [Candidate Name]'s skills?" This allows you to better grasp the candidate's dedication to continuous learning.

Teamwork and Communication

  • Collaboration and Support: "Could you describe [Candidate Name's] collaborative abilities?" “How did they contribute to team projects?" with the question "Did they readily offer support to colleagues?" Evaluate the candidate's ability to work effectively in a team setting.

  • Interpersonal Dynamics: "How did [Candidate Name] generally get along with others?" a "Can you share an example of how they handled a conflict with a team member?" Gain insight into the candidate's interpersonal and conflict resolution abilities.

  • Communication Skills: "In your observation, would you say [Candidate Name] has good communication and listening skills?" Examine the applicant's capacity for both attentive listening and clear communication.

Looking ahead

  • Strengths and Weaknesses: "What are [Candidate Name]'s greatest strengths?" with the question "What areas could they potentially benefit from further support in, especially during the first 30 to 90 days?" Understanding the candidate's strengths and shortcomings allows you to develop a targeted onboarding plan and position them for success.

Wrapping Up

  • Reason for Leaving: "Why did [Candidate Name] leave their previous position?" Gain insight into the candidate's career motivations and reasons for pursuing a new job.

  • Rehiring Potential: "Given the opportunity, would you rehire [Candidate Name]?" A loud "yes" from a reference is a good indication of the candidate's worth and favourable influence.

  • Final Thoughts: "Do you believe [Candidate Name] possesses the skills and experience necessary for the role we discussed?" The overall assessment of the reference can be useful in determining the candidate's suitability.

  • Open-ended Inquiries: "Would you like to add any additional information about [Candidate Name]?" and "Is there anyone else you'd recommend we speak with to gain further insights?" Leave room for the reference to share any valuable details they may not have been asked about specifically.

  • By incorporating these well-rounded reference check questions, you'll gain a comprehensive understanding of your candidates, allowing you to make informed hiring decisions and build a strong, successful team.

    How to Establish an Employee Reference Check System?

    Compliance First

    Research data protection laws and ensure your questions avoid discrimination.

    Transparency and collaboration

    • Inform candidates about reference checks upfront.
    • Ask for permission to contact their preferred references (supervisors or direct reports).

    Consistency is key

    Create reference check templates that include appropriate questions for each position.

    Phone Calls for Deeper Insights

    • Phone calls allow for follow-up questions and reveal tone and intent beyond written responses.
    • Schedule calls at a convenient time for the reference.
    • Briefly introduce yourself, the company, the candidate, and the position.
    • Start with open-ended questions and avoid leading ones.
    • Ensure confidentiality of all answers.


    Consider reference check results alongside interview performance, skills assessments, and other background checks.

    Third-Party Option

    Partner with a background check company to save time chasing down references.

    Let Complygate Simplify Reference Checks for You

    Complygate, the trusted background screening platform, can conduct comprehensive reference checks to reveal a candidate's strengths, weaknesses, development areas, and cultural fit. Our secure, compliant process delivers valuable insights to help you build a winning team.

    Simply provide candidate details and requirements. Complygate handles the rest, delivering a clear picture of your candidate while adhering to background check regulations.

    Get started today!

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