Top 5 Questions to Ask References About Job Candidates

Businessperson on phone checking references, asking questions, and taking notes.

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Whether you want to hire a new company executive or a personal assistant, hiring the right candidate isn't always easy. After you’ve waded through all of the applications and resumes, you still have to interview a range of individuals, and then reach out to references to determine who is best qualified as the right fit for the job.

If you’re tempted to skip calling references altogether, don’t make that mistake. The best way to background check a candidate's skills, employment record, and qualifications are to verify them personally. You can learn everything about the candidate from their personal sense of integrity to how well they interacted with their fellow employees.

Reference checking questions are recommended for employers to ask about candidates regularly but if you want to start with just a few recommended questions, try asking these five.

What Responsibilities did the Candidate Have?

This is a basic question that allows you to gain objective information on the work the candidate has done elsewhere.

Did a previous job involve the same responsibilities as the one for which you’re hiring? Some research indicates that potentially, your most successful hires are people who did a very similar job successfully for another employer.

Or did this previous job involve a completely different set of skills? Does this reference give you confidence that the candidate can fulfill the responsibilities of the role for which you’re hiring or not?

What Were the Candidate’s Strengths?

This question gives the reference a chance to sing the candidate’s praise, something most references are prepared to do, particularly if the candidate has warned the reference that you will call.

What Areas Needed Development?

You don’t only want to know about strengths, but you also want to know the candidate’s weaknesses—information that is harder to glean in a quick reference check.

This is a question that allows you to fish for more information. According to Miriam W. Berger at the national executive recruitment firm DRG,

This question is a good way to get information regarding performance weaknesses that may not have otherwise been volunteered by the reference. Listen carefully as the reference describes how the candidate responded to performance improvement needs and direction.

Did They Receive Raises, Promotions, Demotions?

While this question is fairly objective as well, it will give you valuable intel on the details of the candidate’s former work.

Advancements and raises show you that the candidate was moving forward and growing. Demotions may reveal problems you won’t want to deal with.

Likewise, discovering why the candidate left a previous role lets you know upfront about potential character issues relating to the candidate’s being fired or asked to leave a job, if applicable.

Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

Whenever “you've made a connection with a reference who is willing to talk with you, make the most of your good fortune by asking open-ended questions that call for in-depth answers,” says

“Within reason, give the reference ample opportunity to answer as comprehensively as they are willing to.” Not only will giving the person a little extra time and opportunity to give you feedback help you gain more information, but it will also round out the perspective you’re able to have about the candidate.

Always conclude your conversation by asking if there’s anything else you should know. Give the reference a chance to fill in the gaps with other pertinent details.

In addition to the questions above, pay attention to nonverbal communication—how the person pauses, hesitates or has a hard time answering a specific question.

Some references are reluctant to relay bad or negative information about a candidate, but by carefully listening to verbal hints, you can gain valuable clues that the candidate has a potential issue that you will need to address when you have hired the candidate.