20 Questions to Ask When Conducting Reference Check Interviews

Reference checking is a key part of the hiring process. When done correctly, a reference check interview can reveal critical information about a job candidate. This article will help you understand what your goals for each interview should be and what questions you can ask to accomplish those goals.
20 Questions to Ask When Conducting Reference Check Interviews
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When it comes to interviewing and hiring job candidates, there is a not-so-small list of things that you need to get right. You need to create an attractive job description, ask good interview questions, use time-saving software, and the list goes on and on. One thing that often gets lost in the shuffle is the reference check. Conducting a reference check interview and asking good reference check questions should be a critical part of your hiring process.

Reference checking is far more than just a box to check on a long list of to-dos. When done properly, reference checking can save you some serious headaches. You’ll often learn things you didn’t know, and you’ll have a chance to juxtapose your view of a candidate with the view of someone outside of your organization.

If you want to get better at hiring, a great place to start is by learning how to get the most out of your reference check interviews. To do this, you’ll have to learn how to ask the reference check questions.

Let’s dive in and discover why you should be more thorough with your reference checks and how you can make the most out of each interview.

Why you should conduct reference checks

As we stated in our introduction, reference checks can be useful for a variety of reasons. Here are four that we find most helpful:

1. Verify employment details.

This is the most basic reason to conduct a reference interview, but it’s also one of the most important. If you finish an interview and haven’t verified things such as employment history, job titles, salary history, and more, then you’ve wasted your time.

2. Learn about potential red flags.

You wouldn’t be spending your time with a reference check if you didn’t think the job candidate had a chance to get the position. Obviously, he or she has made a positive impression, and now it’s time to go looking for something you may have missed. A candidate reference check can help you uncover red flags or issues that may not have been addressed in your interviews with the candidate.

3. Understand the candidate’s intangibles.

A job candidate’s resume tells you something about their job titles, what they accomplished, and where they accomplished it. However, it doesn’t tell you anything about the intangible qualities that aren’t on the resume. When conducting a reference check interview, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about things like work ethic, attitude, communication skills, reliability, honesty, and more.

4. Peace of mind.

It’s no secret that hiring is more art than science. No one hire’s the right person every time. But it is nice to be reassured that your instincts are correct and that you haven’t been totally fooled. When interviewing a candidate reference, you have the opportunity to confirm some of your feelings about the candidate with someone who has previously worked alongside the very person you’re considering. They’ll either let you know that your impression of the person is correct, or they’ll dispute what you think and share opinions that may make you re-think your assessment. Either way, there is peace of mind to be gained by talking it through with someone else.

Preparing for the reference check interview

Now that you have a better grasp as to why you’re conducting the reference check interview, here are some tips to help you prepare. You never want to go into a reference check interview without a plan. Here’s what we recommend:

1. Let the candidate know you’re going to be following up with references.

You don’t want to catch the candidate (or the references) by surprise. Notify the candidate during the interview process that you’d like to follow up and connect with their references. You may even ask the candidate the give their references a heads up that you’ll be reaching out.

2. Only contact references that the candidate has approved.

When you ask a job candidate for references and they give you a list, contact the references on the list. This allows you to maintain trust with the candidate. If you eventually hire that candidate and they find out that you contacted people outside of their reference list, they may lose trust in you. Additionally, the list they give will generally be more reliable than trying to find backdoor references that they did not recommend.

3. Contact references and schedule a time to connect for a longer discussion.

One of the problems we often see is that an anxious hiring manager will call up a candidate’s reference and expect to conduct an interview immediately without any prior notice. This is bad form and reflects poorly on you and the company you represent. When scheduling reference check interviews, reach out to the reference ahead of time and ask them when they’d be available for a longer discussion. Do not spring the interview on them as soon as you connect.

4. Set expectations for interview length.

When planning an interview with a candidate’s reference, make sure you set expectations about how long you plan to speak with them. In general, we recommend planning for at least 30-45 minutes. Make sure the reference is aware of the time commitment and can block it out of their schedule.

5. Prepare for the call by outlining the interview questions you want to ask.

Once the reference check interview is set, it’s time to prepare for the call. Do this by outlining the questions you’d like to ask. Prioritize your most pressing questions. Make sure you come prepared. 

Setting the tone for the reference check interview

Alright, you’ve done your preparatory work and you’re ready for the interview. You pick up the phone and dial the number. The voice on the other end answers. Now what?

Start by setting the tone for the reference check interview. Do this by walking through the following steps:

  • Confirm that the reference has time and is available to do the interview.
  • Assure the reference that this conversation is private and all of their answers will remain confidential.
  • Express excitement about the job candidate. Starting from a place of excitement and not a place of skepticism will put the reference at ease.
  • Describe the potential role the candidate may be hired for.

Now, armed with that background information, the reference should be able to participate in a candid conversation about the candidate in question. If you’ve properly described the role the job candidate has applied for, the reference should be able to relate their answers and previous experience with the candidate to that specific role.

All that’s left to do now is ask some questions.

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20 reference check interview questions

The key to a great reference check interview is asking plenty of open-ended questions. Keep in mind that the candidate who recommended that you speak to this reference likely believes that he or she will say good things about them. For this reason, it’s important that you do a little digging to get to the truth. Follow up with “why?” and “how?” questions whenever appropriate. Try to let the reference do 95% of the talking. You’re just there to facilitate the discussion and probe.

What kinds of questions should you ask? Here’s a list that we think will be helpful!

  1. Can you verify the candidate’s employment, job title, pay, and responsibilities?
  2. How long did you work with each other?
  3. What was your relationship like with the candidate?
  4. What is it like working with this candidate?
  5. Why do you think the candidate might be a good fit for this position?
  6. What were the candidate’s main responsibilities? What did they actually do? What specifically did they accomplish?
  7. If you had to pick three words to describe the candidate, what would they be? Why?
  8. What was one of the candidate’s most memorable accomplishments while working with you?
  9. What was one of the candidate’s most memorable failures while working with you?
  10. How would you describe the candidate’s reliability and dependability?
  11. How would you describe the candidate’s attitude towards work?
  12. How would you describe the candidate’s attitude toward feedback and criticism?
  13. What would you say are the candidate’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
  14. What kind of work environment would this candidate do well in?
  15. What skill does the candidate still need to develop?
  16. How did the candidate get along with their co-workers and managers?
  17. Where might this candidate have been able to improve while working with you?
  18. If you had the opportunity to re-hire this candidate, would you?
  19. Would you recommend this candidate for the job?
  20. Is there anything else you think I should know about this candidate?

Conclusion

Any time you conduct a reference check, remember what your primary goals are. More than anything else, it’s important that you walk away being able to verify previous employment details, learning about any issues or red flags you may have missed, understanding the candidate’s intangibles (the things that don’t appear on a resume), and helping you gain confidence in your own assessment. If you walk away from a reference check interview having done those four things, you can consider it a success.

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