7 Questions to Ask When Checking References

Amy Lyons  | 

Checking references validates or disproves the information given on resumes and during interviews. It also provides insight into how and under what kind of circumstances the candidate has performed. This will render a better understanding of how the candidate will work in a new environment. All of this information is important to understand before a job offer is given, so mine for the right info from professional references with these seven questions:

Can You Verify Their Employment Dates, Job Title, and Responsibilities?

Get to the facts right at the start. Did the candidate give an accurate representation of their previous work and responsibilities? Does the job title match the description of their work? Are there gaps in employment dates that the resume glossed over?

The responses to these questions will immediately confirm if the candidate has been honest with you or not. Asking them also comfortably starts the conversation with a focus on the facts, allowing the flow of conversation to move into open-ended questions, with more subjective or informal responses later in the interview.

Why Did They Leave That Position?

This question will again check the reliability of the information given by the candidate. Red flags might rise if the response from the reference is drastically different from that of the candidate. For instance, was their departure from the position a voluntary or involuntary termination?

Checking with the reference may also assist in gathering information the candidate may have felt it was not their place to share or could not due to confidentiality. Perhaps they simply did not know or tactfully chose not to share.

Were They Ever Promoted While at Your Company? Why or Why Not?

If the candidate was offered or asked for a promotion at their previous company, this may bode well for their future employer. If the candidate moved up throughout the company and completed cross-trainings, this may show an aptitude for developing good qualities such as loyalty, striving for continued education, teamwork, or promising management traits.

Keep in mind that if the candidate was not promoted, this may not necessarily represent them poorly. There could have been a lack of opportunities or other factors with the previous employer. Discovering the circumstances of the situation will illuminate you on the candidate’s previous experience.

If the candidate was not promoted due to behavior or negative traits such as unreliability, lack of punctuality, anger issues, or mismanagement of time and/or duties, it may indicate that they are not a viable choice.

What Are Their Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses?

Perspective is the goal of checking the reference’s response to this question. The answers given will provide insight into the candidate’s self-awareness, or propensity to contribute a positive impact. If the candidate has more introverted traits, it may be difficult for them to emphasize their strengths in a glowing way. It is also acceptable to ask the reference to rate the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate on a scale of 1-10 to gain a more objective understanding their abilities.

Dig deeper into this question and ask, “What made these strengths/weaknesses valuable or apparent in the work environment?” Perhaps you will find that an introverted person did not succeed at presenting or leading team meetings, but these traits may not be applicable or important to the duties of the position you are hiring to fill.

It is also appropriate to ask what measures were taken to improve the candidate’s weaknesses and how the candidate performed with these initiatives. This information may help the future employer with an understanding of how to effectively work with them or provide support to develop a candidate’s performance. It is acceptable to ask if there are any tips to encourage the potential employee for their first few weeks as they integrate into a new position.

If the reference falters in their responses, or you detect dishonestly, it may be best to save time — move on and find a good reference with honest feedback on the list of references provided.

What Kind of Work Environment Would They Thrive in, and Why?

The indicators provided by the response to strengths and weaknesses may present a reference for how the candidate may perform in the new work environment or culture. Inquire specifically about what type of environment the candidate thrived in or what worked best for their previous work experience. Then, compare the response to the environment of the potential position. These factors may determine if the candidate will be the right fit.

Did They Get Along With Their Managers and Coworkers?

Getting a stance on the soft skills and abilities of a future employee may be extremely influential in the decision to hire and onboard them. Technical skills may be developed, but soft skills tend to be more innate. Understanding the ability of the candidate to get along with managers and coworkers could help the future employer predict how inter-office or work relationships may proceed.

It is helpful to know right at the start what type of communication skills the candidate possesses. Are they a good listener or team player? Can they be confrontational or difficult to work with? Ask for examples of instances that present the candidate’s personality, abilities, and interactions. Was there a time that the candidate showed exemplary teamwork skills on a project? Did the candidate take feedback appropriately?

It is also suitable to expand on work-based interactions into social interactions if important to their potential position. Were they friendly, talkative, or kind? If they are going into a highly social position, these may be important traits to have. However, if the position is housed in an open, yet small office space, a talkative employee may be disruptive to others.

Would You Hire This Person Again?

Listen carefully to not just the answer but also the way in which it is said. The best response to this question would be “Yes!,” “Absolutely!,” or “Definitely!” If one of these examples is the response you receive but is spoken unenthusiastically or with hesitation, there may be an underlying concern that the reference is choosing not to share with you. If the response is spoken with hesitation or is a simple “no,” you may want to reconsider the applicant. If the response is a resounding affirmative, the green light might be given to make an offer of employment.


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This post was updated November 11, 2019. It was originally published November 11, 2019.