Questions Employers Ask When Conducting a Reference Check

Sample Reference-Check Questions

Miguel Co © The Balance

Are you in the middle of a job search? At some point during the hiring process, you should expect to have your references checked.

In fact, it may even be a good sign: prospective employers usually check references when you're in serious contention for a job. That said, some employers may ask for references as early as when you submit your job application, so it pays to have yours lined up ahead of time, so that you’ll be ready when asked. 

References are important. An Accountemps survey reports that about one in three candidates (34%) are removed from consideration for a position with their company after their references are checked.

What Employers Want to Know

Reference checks help potential employers confirm that candidates have been honest in their job application and interview responses. What do they want to know?

Some of the questions asked when checking references are factual, centering around job title, salary, employment dates, etc.

Reference checks are also an opportunity for an employer to get a sense of a candidate's performance on the job and personal qualities.

If you’re nervous about what will happen during a reference check, it might help to know what to expect. For example, there are standard questions that are used to check out prospective employees.

Learning what employers are likely to ask your references during the process might help you head off potential problems.

Questions Employers Ask When Conducting a Reference Check

Prior to making a job offer, a prospective employer is likely to check references. However, many employers give out only starting and ending dates of employment. In fact, some companies may have a policy that states that managers cannot provide references. Some employers refer all requests for references to the Human Resources department, which often doesn't have additional details accessible.

Others may be willing to go in-depth and discuss your job performance, your work ethic, your attendance at work, your attitude, and other criteria that are important to a company when considering whether to make a job offer. In addition to prior employers, the people you have provided as references may also be contacted.

Depending on your location, the employer may need your consent before they can contact your references. Some cities and states have restrictions on what information can be shared by a prior employer.

Sample Reference Check Questions

Here are some of the questions that may be asked during a reference check:

  • When did (name) work for your company? Could you confirm starting and ending employment dates? When did s/he leave the company?
  • What was her/his position? Can you describe the job responsibilities?
  • Could I briefly review (name's) resume? Do the job title and job description match the position that (name) held?
  • Why did (name) leave the company?
  • What was her/his starting and ending salary?

In some locations, employers are not allowed to ask about salary due to state and local legislation.

  • Did (name) miss a lot of work? Was s/he frequently late? Were there any issues you are aware of that impacted her/his job performance?
  • Did s/he get along well with management and co-workers?
  • Can you describe this person's experience working as a member of a team?
  • Did (name) prefer to work on a team or independently?
  • How did s/he support co-workers?
  • What were (name's) strengths and weaknesses as an employee?
  • Was (name) promoted while with your company?
  • Did (name) supervise other employees? How effectively? If I spoke to those employees, how do you think they would describe (name's) management style?
  • How did (name) handle conflict? How about pressure? Stress?
  • Did you evaluate (name's) performance? Can you speak to her/his strong and weak points? What was noted as needing improvement during this performance review?
  • What was (name's) biggest accomplishment while working for your company?
  • Would you rehire (name) if the opportunity arose?
  • If I describe the position to you, could you describe how good a fit you think (name) would be for the job?
  • Is there anything I haven't asked that you would like to share with me?

Sample Reference Check Letter

Some employers will check references in writing, so they have a record of the reference. This also provides the reference giver with authorization to release information on behalf of the applicant.

Here's an example of a reference check letter sent to a previous employer.

Sample Reference Check Letter

Keene Graphic Design
10 Valley Lane
Keene, Kentucky 40339

August 19, 2020

Mr. Tom Smith
20 Ridge Road
Wilmore, Kentucky 40390

Re: Reference for Ms. Amy Rhineheart

Dear Mr. Smith:

The applicant cited above has applied for employment with Keene Graphic Design. In her employment application, she has listed you as a reference. If you can please provide the following information: we would like to know the applicant's work history, educational history, and personal qualifications or fitness for employment.

Any information you provide will be kept strictly confidential. A release authorizing you to provide the requested information has been signed by the applicant and a copy is attached.

Please answer these questions to the best of your ability, as this information allows us to make an informed hiring decision.

How long have you known Ms. Rhineheart?

What is the nature of your relationship with the applicant?

Why do you think Ms. Rhineheart is a good candidate for this position?

Please list any specific qualifications or characteristics that you feel would make her suitable for this position, or any reasons as to why she would excel at this position.

Do you know of any reasons that may prevent Ms. Rhineheart from fulfilling her position?

Do you know of any reasons why her performance would not be satisfactory?

Information provided by:

Signature: ____________________

Date: ___/___/___

Thank you for your cooperation in providing these answers. We appreciate your prompt response.


Jason Brown
Human Resources Manager
Keene Graphic Design

Tips for Job Applicants

You can't control what your ex-employer will say about you, but you can prepare your personal references to ensure their answers match yours and that you are both on the same page when it comes to your work history and abilities.

Even if you’ve worked together very recently, it makes sense to have a conversation about what the new job entails and what the hiring manager wants to see in a successful candidate. That way, your reference can emphasize the skills and experience that fit the duties of the job.

You might even provide them with a copy of the job description, alongside a reminder of why you’re well-suited for the role. This will save them time, as well as ensuring that you get the best possible reference.

The Bottom Line

GET YOUR REFERENCES READY BEFORE YOU APPLY: Some employers will ask for references early in the process, so it pays to be prepared.

KNOW WHAT QUESTIONS PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYERS ARE LIKELY TO ASK: And know what your references are likely to say in response to those questions.

PREPARE YOUR PERSONAL REFERENCES TO MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION: Consider providing them with a copy of the job description, so that they can emphasize the qualities that make you right for the job. 

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