18 Reference Questions to Ask Candidates

During the interview process, does your company utilize reference checks?

According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, around 87% of businesses conduct reference checks during the pre-employment stage of the employment cycle.

In 2023, however, the stakes are much higher when it comes to employing top talent. While the hiring market isn’t nearly as saturated as it has been in years past, there is still a sense of urgency. Your business needs to be fully staffed — fast.

Unfortunately, failure to vet candidates can lead to inefficient teams, poor job performance, and be detrimental overall to your organization. Depending on the role, a single bad hiring decision can cost at least $15,000 and only increases with seniority.

To build the best team possible at your business, Hireology strongly recommends conducting reference checks prior to employment. This process allows your hiring managers to get a well-rounded view of the candidate by soliciting insights from former supervisors and colleagues. 

During this process, it’s important to ask reference questions that are pointed and open-ended so the reference can fill in the blanks for you.  We know that it can be difficult to read between the lines, so we crafted this list of reference questions designed to assist your hiring managers in building the best team.

References can only tell you so much. Learn more about your candidates with this interview guide!


Determine the candidate’s communication skills

In business, communication is vital. Whether the conversations are internal or external with customers, a real life preview of how your selected candidate communicates can help give you a better sense of how they would fit into your organization. References are one of the best ways to gain this information because we all know that job seekers are on their best behavior during the interview process.

To get a feel for your candidate’s communication skills, consider asking references something along the lines of the following:

  • How did the candidate communicate with people at different levels at your business?
  • Tell me about how the candidate communicates issues and suggestions with others.
  • What would you say the candidate’s communication style is? Can you provide an example?

What’s the impact of their leadership

Every business’s ideal candidate is a leader in some aspect. Sometimes leadership simply means being the first one to make a move, while other times it is quite more literal, like in supervisor roles.

While asking your candidate questions about their accomplishments during the interview process is still a critical part of the process, an outsider’s perspective can give hiring managers additional insight. Answers you receive about your candidate during reference checks can help you read between the lines and determine any other strengths or weaknesses that weren’t mentioned.

To help your hiring manager determine what kind of impact your candidate’s leadership left at previous organizations, consider asking references the following questions:

  • What were some of the candidate’s key accomplishments for the company?
  • What type of impact did your role at your company have in your success?
  • Can you describe a time when the candidate took the initiative to move forward with something without hesitating? What was the outcome?
  • Was there ever a situation where the candidate needed to demonstrate their credibility to gain the confidence of others?

Discover if they own their actions

There’s nothing worse than a coworker who can never take accountability for a mistake they made. One bad apple ruins the bunch, as they say; in work environments like this, resentment can grow and decrease the overall team morale. 

You likely won’t be able to get an accurate picture of whether the candidate takes true accountability for their actions from interviews alone — hence the continued need to conduct reference checks. An outsider’s perspective on how the candidate conducts themselves and whether they own their actions in the workplace can help you determine if they are the best person for your team.

To help you discover if the candidate will take responsibility for their actions, consider asking reference questions like:

  • Was there a moment where you observed the candidate holding themselves and others accountable?
  • How does the candidate operate under pressure?
  • When given feedback on areas to grow and develop, how did the candidate react?
  • What types of tasks would you involve the candidate in without hesitation? Are there any types that you’d be concerned about including them in?

Self-management skills 

Being able to regulate one’s time and emotions are skills that extend beyond the personal self. How a candidate conducts themselves and allocates their time greatly impacts their productivity and how they will fit into your organization overall. 

Again, since applicants are on their best behavior during the interview process, it’ll be hard to put a finger on how they actually perform in the workplace. Asking reference questions about how a candidate manages themselves can be enlightening for hiring managers.

Reference questions that can give your hiring managers further insight into a candidate’s ability to self-manage include:

  • Can you describe how the candidate’s communication style has built relationships with a variety of people to help the organization succeed?
  • Can you describe how the candidate’s role at your company supports its overall success? Were there any problems?
  • Was there ever a time where a decision could not be made that the candidate stepped up to facilitate a solution?

Cover your bases

In addition to determining if the candidate is the right person for the job, your hiring managers have an obligation to analyze if your organization is a right fit for them. You don’t want to set anyone up for failure in any way — and that includes fitting into your company’s culture. 

You can use reference checks to qualify candidates in this way, along with finding out information on how to help them be successful long-term. You don’t know what you don’t know, and in this case, the more information you can get about a potential new employee, the better.

Have your hiring managers cover your bases to set your candidate up for success by asking reference questions like:

  • What type of work environment does this candidate thrive in?
  • What skills could the candidate develop to reach their full potential?
  • Would you recommend this candidate?
  • Would the candidate need additional support in the first 90 days for any reason?

Finding the right questions to ask references is only one piece of a great hiring process. Check out our hiring process guide for a holistic look at how to move faster and make smarter hiring decisions.

Reference checks are one of the best ways to get a more rounded view of your candidate before their first day. By planning the types of questions you ask for better reference checks, you can help your hiring team build the best team for your organization. To see how Hireology can help with automated background checks, schedule a demo today!



Get our hiring insights delivered right to your inbox

We think it’s uncool to send spam, so we promise we won't.

By subscribing you agree with the Terms and Privacy Policy