The best reference check questions

Posted in Candidates, Employers

Posted by Joanne Caine
Published on 20 July, 2018

Welcoming someone new to your team is always exciting. But it’s not without risks. Hiring the wrong person is an expensive mistake. That’s why it pays to find out as much as possible about a candidate before you commit. You want to make sure they are a good fit for your business and your available role. Yet even with the most rigorous recruitment process in the world you are - to a certain extent - taking a gamble. That’s the nature of hiring and firing.

So is a reference check worth the hassle? If you are reading this, you already know the answer. The more intel you have on your candidate, the better. Sure, some companies are annoyingly retentive when it comes to spilling the beans on former employees. And chasing that elusive HR manager is a pain when your to-do list already unfurls like a Roman scroll. But patience will likely be rewarded.

Getting the most from reference checks involves two key elements:

1)   Talking to the right people;

2)   Asking the right questions.

Talk to the right people

Excuse us for stating the obvious. But ideally you want to talk to people who know what it’s like to work with your new hire. Colleagues, line managers, people they reported into regularly. If your new hire is transferring from a really big company, the CEO or HR manager may not have ever spoken to your candidate. At the other end of the scale, don’t even waste your time contacting friends and family for a reference. You’re hardly likely to get objective feedback. Is this your new hire’s first job? Seek references from extracurricular activities, voluntary work or even teachers/university lecturers.

Ask the right questions

Tailor your questions to the type of role you have hired for. For example, if you have taken on someone for an entry-level or junior position, you don’t really need to know about their managerial credentials. What’s more important is how well they respond to criticism or integrate into teams. Remember, this is about finding out as best you can how well your new hire is going to fit into their new job. Don’t treat it as a box-ticking exercise.

Do their details stack up?

The first task is to make sure your new hire hasn’t over-egged their CV. Ask the former employer about how long your candidate was with the company, their job title and their responsibilities. Also make sure any success stories that your new hire has mentioned actually check out in real life.

What was the starting and finishing salary?

Not essential, but a benchmark is always good - especially if your new hire has tried to play hardball over their salary.

How well do they cope with pressure?

Does your new hire’s job involve tight deadlines or meetings with high-profile clients? Then you want to make sure they are impervious to pressure. Indefatigable and unflappable. At the very least you don’t want to hire the sort of person who has panics when the printer runs out of ink.

Are they punctual? How often do they call in sick?

Missing in Action when it matters most? Uh-oh.

What is their working style?

Does this employee thrive when left to work off their own initiative or do they work better solving problems as part of a team? Now’s the time to find out. Think about how the answers relate to this candidate’s new role and responsibilities.

Did they lead tasks well/manage a team well?

If leadership or management qualities are required in your new hire’s role, this is your chance to get a former employer’s perception of whether or not they are up to the task.

How do they respond to criticism?

Sometimes, in any job, you have to take criticism. How you respond to criticism can reveal a lot about your character, your confidence and your commitment. You want someone who recognises that their performance is about helping the business to succeed and can take criticism on the chin, rather than taking it personally and holding grudges.

How well do you think they will perform x, y, z tasks?

If you are talking to the right person (see above), they should be able to offer some insight on how well your new hire will adapt to their new role. Don’t be afraid to ask for some input. You never know what little truffles of knowledge you might dig up.

What’s their personality like around the office?

Hey, it’s not all about how quickly your new hire can write a press release or win new business or schmooze your clients. Some of your staff will be spending more time with this person than they do their families. They’d better be good fun - or at the very least - tolerable to be around.

Over to you...!

There you have it. So head off with confidence to complete your reference checks. Just remember that the answers are never the be all and end all. Maybe your referee is incredibly busy and doesn’t have time to provide in-depth answers. Or perhaps your new hire was mistreated by their former employer and didn’t give their all as a result.

Take things with a pinch of salt and never be guided in your decision-making solely by an employer reference. Having said that, you’d like to think that if your new hire had seriously wowed their previous employer, they’d take a few moments to write a reference that reflected that - wouldn’t you?

Looking for some extra advice to help your recruitment process? Then explore our other recruitment advice articles here.


Managing Director

I joined Cathedral Appointments in 1998 to cover a maternity leave and never left. I now own the business and love my job. I've a great team of consultants who work with me in ensuring that Cathedral Appointments provide an excellent service to candidates and clients alike.

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The best reference check questions

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