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Key Things to Keep in Mind When Asking Reference Check Questions

The Betts Team
June 19, 2021

Reference check questions, as part of the due diligence process in recruitment, serve many purposes. Apart from finding out if the candidate is the right fit for your company, these questions help you avoid legal liability of hiring the wrong person. The right individual for the job will help boost productivity and morale at the workplace.

However, it can be challenging to know what reference check questions to ask to obtain relevant information.

Professional reference questions best practices

Before you actually make the reference check call, it is important to keep certain things in mind. Firstly, formulate the best practices to be followed when conducting a reference check. This will include details on

The timing of the reference check – A general best practice in terms of conducting reference checks is to wait until a conditional employment offer has been made. If your company has a practice of performing reference checks before the offer, ensure consistency of the timing. Conduct reference check at the defined stage in the hiring journey, for instance, after the first round of interview. Confirm whether it is legally permissible to obtain the information before you make a conditional offer.

Obtain necessary authorization – Written authorization from the candidate may be required in some states to conduct a reference check. Even if your state does not require you to take permission, it is best practice to ensure you have the candidate’s written authorization. Ask applicants during the screening process to sign a form that authorizes former employers to reveal job-related information. Some employers also have a policy of obtaining the employee’s authorization for disclosure of job-related information.

Verify information – You can leverage the reference checks to confirm the information your candidates have provided in their resumes, employment applications, and interviews. When you make a reference check call, confirm the candidate’s position and dates of employment. While asking the pay history of the candidate has been the traditional practice, many jurisdictions have passed laws to prohibit recruiters from seeking this information. Whether or not this applies to your company, a good recruitment practice is to abide by pay equity laws.

Have a list of professional reference questions -Creating a checklist of professional reference check questions will help save time and effort involved in preparing questions to ask for each candidate you screen. If you are unsure about what reference questions will help elicit the most relevant information, read the next section on the top reference check questions.

Document reference check – Document the conversation with the reference, including their name and title, date, as well as the specific job-related information received.

The top 8 employment references questions 

Knowing what reference check questions to ask is as important as avoiding the wrong type of questions. Broad or vague questions (for instance, “Tell me all that you can about Stephen”) will elicit vague answers. These responses will be focused on the best traits of Stephen rather than the ones relevant to the position you are hiring him for.

While designing open-ended questions, you can utilize the information you obtained from the candidate’s resume or during the interview. Mention specific instances or achievements that the candidate has listed in the resume or the interview. Ask the reference to tell you more about the specific contribution or role of the candidate in that task.

Another important thing to remember is to stick to the facts being given out by the reference instead of focusing on the tone, inflection or voice.

Here are the top eight reference check questions you can ask to get valuable insights into the candidate’s fit for the role.

1. What was the role/position of the candidate?

As one of the basic reference questions, this question will help you confirm the role of the candidate in the previous company. You can also get more details on the period when the candidate worked for the company as well as the reason why the candidate left the company.

2. In what capacity were you associated with the candidate?

It is important to not only know how the candidate and the reference worked together and the time frame. This helps understand how regularly and closely the reference and the candidate worked with each other. This will, in turn, determine how well the reference knew the candidate. Someone who only briefly supervised a candidate, for instance, may not have had the opportunity to assess the latter’s strengths, weaknesses and achievements.

3. Is the candidate dependable and reliable?

Recruiters expect qualities such as punctuality, self-motivation and reliability in candidates. While these traits are not considered to be differentiators, recruiters cannot assume that the candidate possesses the attributes. Asking the reference to describe the candidate’s dependability and reliability will help recruiters understand

  1. if the individual can be trusted to complete projects,
  2. arrive on time to work and
  3. adhere to deadlines.

4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate?

While you might ask the candidate to describe their weaknesses and strengths during the interview, including this in your employee reference checklist is helpful. If the responses of the candidate as well as the reference matches, it can indicate the self-awareness of the candidate. The response to the question from the reference gives you insights on whether the candidate fits into the role in question and your company on the whole.

Going a step beyond to ask why the candidate’s strengths were important to the company’s work culture can give you a clearer picture of their suitability for the role. Your reference call questions can include queries on how the candidate handled mistakes as well. Many times, a problem faced in one organization may not be considered as an issue in another. These questions will help you understand how the candidate utilized their strengths to solve specific issues that mattered to the company.

5. What were the accomplishments of the candidate?

A key differentiator between a great candidate and a good candidate may lie in whether they went above and beyond their normal duties regularly. One of the crucial questions to ask references for a job relates to what the most memorable or significant achievements were of a candidate. If the reference is able to recall instances when the candidate took initiatives, displayed leadership or problem-solving skills, your hiring decision may become easier.

6. What kind of work environment will the candidate do well in ?

While there are multiple reasons why employees quit a company, some of the most common ones are toxic work culture, poor work-life balance and rigid workplace policies.

One of the objectives of interviewing a candidate is to verify if your organization is the right place to work for them. If your company’s work environment is not one that aligns with the candidate’s expectations, the chances are high that they will underperform or quit.

Your job reference questions should include the question on what kind of work environment motivates the candidate to perform well. This will help you assess if they will be able to function and thrive in your company’s work environment. For instance, if the candidate gives their best with a flexible work schedule that your company does not offer, it may be a red flag.

However, the reference describing a work environment different from your company’ need not be grounds for dismissal automatically. Instead, the answer to this question can help you know which areas you need to explore further during the interview.

7. What skills did the candidate develop or need to achieve their full potential?

It is not commonplace to encounter a potential candidate who has all the desired qualifications you seek. By including the question on the candidate’s skills in your list of questions to ask, you can help identify skill gaps in the candidate.

While some skills can be learnt on the job, if the candidate is missing some skills that are critical for the role, they may not be the best match. The question can help you understand how your company can foster the professional development of the candidate. You can also gauge the willingness of the candidate to work toward enhancing these skills.

8. Do you recommend the candidate?

This is one of the queries that should feature in recruiters’ list of questions. Many references feel obligated to talk about the candidate’s positive traits when asked to describe strengths and weaknesses. However, when you ask if the reference would recommend the candidate, their response will indicate if they are truly enthusiastic in endorsing the candidate. The response can also be indicative of the candidate’s career success at your company.

Apart from these, you can also ask questions to get insights into the soft skills of the candidate such as self-regulation, motivation or empathy. Ask these questions if these traits are important for the role you are hiring them for. While negative feedback needs to be taken seriously, investigate these further instead of automatically disqualifying the candidate. Ask probing questions to the candidate on these aspects and contact other references to absolve or verify negative comments.