Hiring the right candidate is crucial for the success of any organization. A comprehensive reference check can provide invaluable insights into a candidate’s past job performance, work ethic, and cultural fit. In this guide, we’ll cover the essential reference check questions every hiring manager should ask to ensure they make well-informed hiring decisions.

Key Takeaways

  1. Reference checks are crucial for verifying a candidate’s qualifications and assessing their potential fit within an organization.
  2. Key areas to focus on during reference checks include work performance, interpersonal skills, and overall character.
  3. Open-ended questions often yield more insightful responses than yes/no questions.
  4. It’s important to ask consistent questions across all references to ensure fair comparisons.
  5. Be aware of legal considerations and avoid questions that may lead to discrimination.
  6. Pay attention to both what is said and what is left unsaid during reference conversations.
  7. Use reference checks as part of a comprehensive hiring process, not as the sole decision-making factor.


According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), reference checks are crucial in verifying candidate information and reducing the risk of hiring unqualified candidates. This study highlights the importance of asking the right questions during reference checks to ensure the accuracy of the information gathered.

In the quest for hiring the ideal candidate, the reference check often gets relegated to a mere formality, but that’s a mistake. Reference checks can uncover insights that no resume or interview question can fully reveal. A reference check involves meaningful conversations with individuals who can provide firsthand accounts of a candidate’s experience, performance, and workplace behavior. This step complements other hiring assessments, such as interviews and skills tests, ensuring a holistic evaluation process.

Our guide aims to arm hiring managers with a targeted list of questions to ask during reference checks. You’ll be better equipped to gauge a candidate’s potential and suitability for your organization by zeroing in on these key queries. The questions we’ll outline go beyond the basics, focusing on aspects such as job performance, behavioral traits, and cultural fit—all critical components for making an informed and successful hiring decision.

Why Conduct Reference Checks?

Reference checks serve as a critical step in the hiring process. They offer a well-rounded view that complements the candidate’s resume, interviews, and other assessments. Here’s why conducting them is essential:

  • Verification of Information: A candidate’s resume and interview answers give you a snapshot of their professional history, but reference checks validate that information. Confirming job titles, dates of employment, and responsibilities ensures no discrepancies that might indicate dishonesty or exaggeration.
  • Insight Into Work History: Beyond the surface details of job titles and durations, reference checks delve deeper into the candidate’s role and responsibilities. This helps you understand whether their experience aligns with what your position requires.
  • Cultural Fit: A candidate might have stellar qualifications, but their tenure might be short-lived if they don’t fit within your organization’s culture. Reference checks allow you to assess cultural compatibility by understanding how the candidate interacted within their previous workplaces.
  • Risk Mitigation: Interviews and resumes don’t always reveal potential issues. Reference checks can uncover red flags—issues related to performance, behavior, or reliability—that might not surface otherwise. It’s a way to safeguard your organization against potentially problematic hires.

By conducting thorough reference checks, you validate the information provided and gather essential insights that contribute to making the most informed and holistic hiring decisions.

Types of Reference Check Questions

Employment Verification Questions

Employment verification questions help ensure the candidate has been truthful about their past job roles and responsibilities. These questions are pretty straightforward, aiming to confirm details like job titles, dates of employment, and reporting structures. Think of it as setting the baseline—you want to know the candidate’s story checks out before diving into the specifics of their performance and behavior.

Performance-related questions get to the heart of how well the candidate did their job. You’ll want to ask about the quality of their work, their productivity, and their reliability. This isn’t just about numbers or metrics; it’s about understanding whether they consistently met or exceeded expectations. These questions also help you gauge whether the candidate will add value to your team.

Behavioral Questions

Behavioral questions offer insights into the candidate’s soft skills and how they handle real-world challenges. You’re looking for stories that show their ability to navigate stress, solve conflicts, and work well in a team. These anecdotes can help paint a complete picture of their work ethic and interpersonal skills, filling in the gaps that a resume or interview might leave.

Cultural Fit Questions

Cultural fit questions are essential to ensure your new hire will blend well with your existing team. These questions evaluate whether the candidate’s values, work style, and overall approach align with your company’s culture. It’s not just about ticking boxes; it’s about finding someone who will thrive in your specific work environment, making your team stronger and more cohesive.

By covering these types of questions, you can create a well-rounded view of your potential hires, ensuring they can do the job and fit seamlessly into your organization.

Sample Reference Check Questions Template

Basic Information

This is your starting point. It’s straightforward, but the detail confirms whether a candidate has been truthful. Verify job titles, employment dates, and reporting structure. If these basic facts don’t check out, it’s a red flag. Adjustments in your interpretation may be needed if the information contradicts what was on the resume or mentioned during the interview. Skipping this basic verification could lead to hiring someone based on false premises. Therefore, starting here is vital before diving into more subjective assessments.

Question #1: Can you confirm the candidate’s job title, dates of employment, and reporting structure?

PurposeTo verify the accuracy of the information provided by the candidate.

Performance and Skills

Understanding a candidate’s performance and skillset can reveal a few well-crafted questions. These questions aim to move beyond the surface to get a clearer, more comprehensive picture of a candidate’s capabilities and dedication. This lays the groundwork for understanding whether their performance and work ethic align with your organization’s needs and values.

Question #2: How would you rate the candidate’s overall job performance?

AreaQuality of Work
PurposeTo understand the candidate’s work quality and attention to detail.

Ask for specific examples of excellent work to substantiate this rating. Real-world examples provide a clearer picture than abstract ratings.

Question #3: What are the candidate’s main strengths and areas for improvement?

AreaStrengths and Weaknesses
PurposeIdentify the candidate’s key skills and any areas needing development.

Delving deeper into strengths or weaknesses can reveal how candidates approach their development and learning. For instance, “Can you give an example of a situation where the candidate leveraged this strength/weakness?”

Question #4: Can you explain when the candidate went above and beyond to meet deadlines or project goals?

PurposeTo gauge the candidate’s dedication and reliability.

Asking how often such behavior was observed can help differentiate between a one-off occurrence and a consistent trait.

Behavioral Traits

Teamwork, conflict resolution, and adaptability are fundamental aspects of a successful employee, making it essential to delve into these traits during a reference check. These questions reveal how a candidate functioned in past roles and predict their future performance in your team.

A U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) study outlines best practices for conducting reference checks, including asking behavioral questions and verifying the candidate’s work history. The study emphasizes the need for a standardized process to ensure fairness and consistency in hiring.

Question #5: How did the candidate interact with team members and contribute to team projects?

PurposeTo assess the candidate’s ability to work within a team.

Teams are the backbone of most organizations. Understanding how candidates collaborate, communicate, and support their colleagues can offer a realistic picture of their potential contribution to your team. Look for examples that highlight strong collaboration or areas where teamwork needs improvement.

Question #6: Can you describe a situation where the candidate had to handle a conflict at work? How did they manage it?

AreaConflict Resolution
PurposeTo understand the candidate’s conflict-resolution skills.

Workplace conflicts are inevitable, and handling disagreements constructively is crucial. This question can uncover the candidate’s problem-solving techniques and emotional intelligence. Were they able to navigate tense situations calmly and fairly? Their responses offer clues about their leadership and mediation capabilities.

Question #7: How did the candidate handle changes or unexpected challenges in their job?

PurposeTo measure the candidate’s adaptability and problem-solving abilities.

In today’s fast-paced work environments, being adaptable is not just a plus; it’s often a necessity. This question reveals how the candidate copes with change, whether they demonstrate resilience, and how swiftly they pivot when required. Knowing a candidate’s adaptability helps predict how they will face uncertainty and evolution in your organization.

Question #8: How did the candidate interact with team members and contribute to team projects?

PurposeTo assess the candidate’s ability to work within a team.

Teams are the backbone of most organizations. Understanding how a candidate collaborates, communicate, and support their colleagues can offer a realistic picture of their potential contribution to your team. Look for examples that highlight strong collaboration or areas where teamwork needs improvement.

When you frame your reference checks with these behavioral questions, you’re gathering data and building a narrative that helps forecast a candidate’s fit and potential in real-life situations. With this knowledge, you can make more nuanced and confident hiring decisions.

Cultural Fit

To ensure a candidate aligns with your company culture, digging deeper into their work environment preferences and values is key. Here are some essential questions and their respective purposes that hiring managers should ask.

Question #9: What work environment do you think the candidate thrives in?

AreaWork Environment
PurposeAsking about the optimal work environment for the candidate helps determine if they can genuinely thrive in your organization’s setup—be it fast-paced or laid-back, collaborative or independent. This also covers their comfort in remote vs. in-office settings which can be critical depending on your company’s working model.

Question #10: Can you describe the candidate’s work ethic and integrity?

AreaValues and Ethics
PurposeTo assess the candidate’s ability to work within a team.

This question zeroes in on the candidate’s core values and moral compass. Understanding their work ethic and integrity from a former supervisor’s perspective sheds light on their reliability and honesty, ensuring they match your company’s ethical standards.

Integrating these questions into your reference check process ensures that candidates possess the required technical skills and align with your organization’s values and work style. This alignment is crucial for long-term success and cohesion within your team.

Closing Questions

Question #11: Would you rehire this candidate if the opportunity arose? Why or why not?

PurposeTo get a direct indication of the candidate’s overall value as an employee.

This question cuts to the chase. If a previous employer would jump at the chance to bring someone back, it’s a strong endorsement. Conversely, hesitation or a flat-out “no” can tell you there’s more beneath the surface. It gauges not just performance but also the lasting impression the candidate made—both good and bad.

Additional Comments

Question #12: Is there anything else we should know about the candidate we haven’t covered?

PurposeTo uncover any additional insights or potential red flags.

Sometimes the most telling information is what’s not on your list. This open-ended question invites the reference to share anything crucial that might not have come up. You might discover a hidden strength or, equally important, a deal-breaker that wasn’t obvious through structured questions.

By incorporating these closing questions, you’ll fully understand the candidate’s past performance and potential fit within your organization. They are a final checkpoint to ensure nothing important slips through the cracks.

When conducting reference checks, adhering to legal and ethical standards is crucial to protect the candidate and yourself as a hiring manager. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Consent and Confidentiality: Before calling up references, ensure you have the candidate’s explicit permission. This step isn’t just a formality; it’s a legal requirement in many jurisdictions. Inform the candidate about who you’ll be speaking to and what information you seek. All information gathered should be handled with the utmost confidentiality and shared only with those directly involved in the hiring decision.
  2. Fairness and Non-Discrimination: Stick to questions relevant to the job and the candidate’s ability to perform it. Avoid delving into areas that could be interpreted as discriminatory, such as age, race, religion, gender, marital status, or disability. Your goal is to gather insights directly pertinent to the candidate’s role and organizational fit, not inadvertently introducing bias into the hiring process.
  3. Documentation: Keep detailed records of your reference checks, including who you spoke to, the questions asked, and the responses received. This documentation can be invaluable if you need to justify or review your hiring decision. Detailed notes ensure that you can provide evidence of a fair and consistent reference-checking process, which can stand up to scrutiny if questioned.

By following these legal and ethical guidelines, you comply with the law and uphold the standards of fairness and integrity in the hiring process.


Conducting thorough reference checks ensures you bring the right people into your organization. The right questions can uncover the nuanced aspects of a candidate’s past performance and behavior that might otherwise remain hidden. Asking purposeful, well-structured questions can validate a candidate’s capabilities and cultural fit, preventing costly hiring mistakes.

We encourage you to use the questions this article outlines as a framework for your reference checks. These questions are designed to extract meaningful insights and foster better-informed hiring decisions. Remember, effective reference checks invest in your company’s future success. For further reading, don’t forget to check out the Comprehensive Guide to Employment Background Checks. Happy hiring!

Additional Resources

For further reading and to deepen your understanding of the reference check process, the following resources are invaluable:

  • More about reference checks from OPM.gov: This resource provides an in-depth overview of effective reference-checking practices, including legal considerations and practical tips.
  • SHRM Resource Center: The Society for Human Resource Management offers many articles, guidelines, and best practices related to reference checks and hiring processes.
  • EEOC Guidelines on Reference Checking: Ensure compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines to avoid discriminatory practices during reference checks.

By leveraging these resources, hiring managers can enhance their understanding and execution of reference checks, leading to more informed hiring decisions.