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How to Conduct a Reference Check (With Questions)

By Priya Jain


Reference checks verify the accuracy of a candidate’s resume and helps pinpoint any potential red flags. 

This article provides business owners with the knowledge and tools to conduct effective reference checks. By adhering to these guidelines, professionals can enhance the quality of their hiring decisions, contributing positively to their organization’s success.

Why Should You Conduct a Reference Check?

Reference checks are a vital tool in the recruitment process, offering a broader and more objective view of a candidate’s past performance, skills, and character.

Conducting a reference check is essential for these reasons:

Verification of Resume Accuracy

Reference checks confirm the accuracy of information provided by the candidate on their resume. This includes verifying employment dates, job titles, responsibilities, and achievements. It’s a way to ensure that the candidate’s qualifications and experiences are genuine and accurate.

Understanding Past Job Performance

Through these checks, employers can gain insights into a candidate’s past job performance. This includes understanding how the candidate applied their skills in previous roles and how they contributed to their past organizations. Such information is often more detailed than what employers can understand from a resume or an interview.

Assessment of Work Relationships and Ethical Conduct

References can provide valuable insights into a candidate’s ability to work well with others, including their relationships with managers, colleagues, direct reports, and clients. Additionally, references may reveal aspects of the candidate’s ethics, integrity, and other character traits crucial for certain roles.

Identification of Potential Red Flags

Reference checks can uncover potential red flags that might not be apparent through other means of assessment. This includes issues like a history of disciplinary problems, absenteeism, or conflicts with coworkers. Identifying such issues beforehand can help employers avoid problematic hiring.

Legal Compliance and Avoiding Discrimination

Reference checks can ensure that the hiring process is fair and compliant with employment laws. This is particularly important in avoiding unintentional discrimination based on prohibited criteria such as age, race, gender, disability, or marital status.

How to Conduct a Reference Check

Conducting a reference check is a multi-step process.

Here’s how to conduct a reference check:

1. Obtain Consent from the Candidate

Before you begin the reference check process, ensure you have the candidate’s permission to contact the references listed on their resume. This is a matter of courtesy and a legal requirement in some jurisdictions.

2. Prepare Your Questions

Develop a list of questions relevant to the position you are hiring for. These questions should be focused on the candidate’s qualifications, work performance, strengths, weaknesses, and work ethic. Avoid questions that lead to discrimination or violate privacy laws.

3. Choose the Right Method

Decide whether you will conduct the reference check via phone call or email. Phone calls can provide more in-depth insights and allow for follow-up questions, while emails can offer a written record of the reference’s responses.

4. Verify Basic Information

Start by confirming the candidate’s employment dates, job title, and responsibilities. This step helps you verify the accuracy of the resume.

5. Ask In-Depth Questions

Go beyond the basics and ask questions about the candidate’s work performance, interpersonal skills, and how they handle various work situations. Tailor your questions based on the reference’s relationship with the candidate.

6. Listen for Red Flags and Positive Indicators

When talking to someone’s references, listen carefully to what they say. For instance, it can be a positive indicator if they seem enthusiastic and give clear details. But if they sound unsure or don’t give much detail, it could be a potential red flag. 

7. Document the Responses

Keep records of what was discussed during the reference checks. This documentation can be useful for reviewing the candidate’s file and maintaining a record of your hiring process.

8. Use the Information Appropriately

Finally, use the information gathered from the reference checks as one part of your overall decision-making process. It should complement the insights from interviews, assessments, and other evaluation methods.

Top 10 Reference Check Questions

When conducting reference checks, asking the right questions helps you gain valuable insights about a candidate.

Here are 10 essential questions to ask:

1. Can you confirm the candidate’s job title and dates of employment?

This question verifies the accuracy of the candidate’s resume, ensuring that they have truthfully represented their experience and tenure at previous positions.

2. What were the candidate’s primary responsibilities and duties in their role?

Asking this helps you understand the scope and nature of the candidate’s previous roles, providing context to their experience and skills.

3. How would you describe the candidate’s work performance?

This question aims to gain insight into the candidate’s overall effectiveness, productivity, and quality of work in their previous job.

4. What were the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses?

Understanding a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses from someone who has worked with them can help you assess their potential fit and areas for development in your organization.

5. Can you provide examples of the candidate’s accomplishments or notable contributions?

Specific examples of achievements give a clearer picture of the candidate’s impact in previous roles and their ability to deliver results.

6. How did the candidate handle challenging situations or conflicts in the workplace?

This question sheds light on the candidate’s problem-solving skills, resilience, and ability to manage conflicts, which are important traits in any role.

7. Did the candidate work well in a team or independently?

Understanding whether the candidate excels in teamwork or independent work can help you determine whether they match your company’s team dynamics and job requirements.

8. How would you rate the applicant’s attendance at work?

Regular attendance and punctuality are key indicators of reliability and commitment, making this question important for assessing the candidate’s work ethic.

9. Would you rehire this applicant?

A direct question on rehiring can reveal the overall satisfaction and impression the candidate left in their previous employment.

10. Is there anything else we should know?

This open-ended question allows the reference to share any additional, potentially important information that hasn’t been covered in the previous questions.

Best Practices When Conducting Reference Checks

By following these best practices, you can utilize reference checks to gain valuable insights into a candidate’s past performance and suitability for the role, enhancing the quality of your hiring decisions.

Here are some key best practices to consider:

Contact Multiple References

It’s important to reach out to various types of references – former supervisors, direct reports, and colleagues – to get different perspectives on the candidate’s work. While supervisors can provide insights into the candidate’s job performance and responsibilities, colleagues and direct reports can offer a view of the candidate’s interpersonal skills and team dynamics. The goal is to form a well-rounded view of the candidate’s professional behavior and skills.

Ask for Examples

When discussing the candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, or behavioral traits, asking for specific examples or situations where these were demonstrated is beneficial. This approach leads to more detailed and actionable insights, helping you to understand the context and impact of the candidate’s behavior or skills in real-world scenarios.

Legal and Ethical Considerations

Ensuring the reference check complies with all legal and ethical standards is essential. This means avoiding questions that could be considered discriminatory based on age, gender, race, religion, or other protected characteristics. Employers should focus on questions directly related to job performance and qualifications.

Follow Up

If a reference’s response raises new questions or if you need more detailed information, it’s appropriate to follow up with the candidate or past employer for clarification or additional context. This can involve asking for specific examples, inquiring about inconsistencies, or delving deeper into areas of particular interest or concern. Effective follow-up questions can provide deeper insights into the candidate’s abilities and fit for the role. 

Priya Jain

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