20 Reference Check Questions to Ask by Phone (2021)
It can be challenging to come up with the right reference check questions to ask in order to gain the right insights on a job seeker. A reference check is a process where an employer can validate and confirm a candidate's ability to perform on the job.
They confirm the candidate's working history, their prior job title, job duties, job responsibilities (daily activities), and overall competencies on the job.
What are reference checks?
Reference checks allow employers to have conversations with prior managers and supervisors regarding someone's ability to perform on the job.
It allows a future employer to get a sense of the candidate's working style, validates their prior work history, and ensures that the candidate has the skills mentioned in the resume and cover letter.
When should you perform a reference check?
Checking references should happen when there's any outstanding questions regarding a job applicants ability to perform on the job.
It doesn't have to mean that you don't trust the applicant. In most cases, it means that there wasn't enough information the cover letter, resume, and interview to get an idea that they're the right person for the job.
It's best to conduct a reference check when:
- It's unclear that their work history is valid.
- They listed too many skills to be true.
- You want to validate their ability to perform on the job.
- A desire to validate career accomplishments or achievements.
Why should you conduct a reference check?
A reference check should be performed when there's a strong desire to validate a candidate's professional history. Or when you're interested in learning more about the candidate's strengths on the job.
Reference check discussions should be a fast way to learn how they treated their co-workers and how their co-workers felt about them in the workplace.
Important: The act of reference checking doesn't have to be related to validating someone's employment history. It could be to learn more about placing the candidate into the right team, right project, and more.
How do you conduct a reference check?
Follow these steps to conduct a reference check:
- Inform the job applicant you'll be contacting their references.
- Open the list of references or reference letters provided by the job seeker.
- Make an email or phone call to the reference.
- Identify yourself as a future company that the job applicant wants to work with.
- Set a time to discuss by phone.
- Let the reference and job applicant know that all questions will remain confidential.
- Verify the employment dates, skills, qualifications, and other criteria.
- Describe the open position, referencing the job description.
- Ask the reference check questions.
- Take notes during the call.
- Thank the reference for their time after the phone call.
Best reference check questions to ask
Here are the best questions to ask when you want to check references.
How do you know the candidate?
This question will help to level-set the conversation. It ensures that the reference helps to confirm that the job applicant had a professional relationship with them and not a personal one.
A question like this will begin the conversation.
How long did you two work together?
As a former colleague or manager, it's important the references provide validation of the employment history. And helps to confirm there was enough time spent together to be able to provide insight on the candidates abilities.
What was their working style?
This will begin discussions regarding the performance of the job applicant or new hire. Ask this question to see how the former manager will respond.
A great answer should provide insight into:
- How they collaborated with other employees.
- What type of worker they were.
- If they had the ability to be a leader/manager one day.
Do you know their daily job duties and activities?
As a former employee, co-worker, or manager they should be able to describe the candidates job duties and daily activities.
A great answer should help:
- Level-set the conversation.
- Provide insight into the candidate's daily focus.
- Help to understand what they didn't work on.
What was some of their main responsibilities?
It's best to learn how they interacted with the business from the top-level. If they're applying for a position that has marketing duties, did the candidate have any daily responsibilities around marketing?
It can assist in:
- Validating experience of the candidate.
- Fact checking the resume and cover letter skills mentioned.
Did they take direction well?
A great employee is someone who things about the company first, themselves second. With this type of a question, the contact can provide you insight into their direction taking abilities. Which is just as important as their ability to follow through on the direction.
Can help to understand:
- Their behavior in the workplace.
- If they take advice well from others.
- And if the person was an executor.
Did they take feedback well?
Receiving feedback is an important part of any job. For example, were they able to take feedback from a manager that would allow them to further improve their skills? Or take feedback for improving what didn't go well in a project.
How did they support their team members?
This open-ended question should provide the reference with the ability to talk through real-life examples. And could assist a hiring manager in deciding which interview question to ask.
Ask the question and let the reference tell the story.
Do you think the candidate is a good fit for this position?
Be sure to ask this only after describing what the current job opening is. Use a few points about the job to provide insight. The job title, general duties, and overall responsibilities.
What you should learn:
- If the manager feels they're a solid fit for the job.
- Additional recommendations the manager may have about working with the job seeker.
How did they get along with others?
A question that can assist in learning about characteristics in the work place. If the job seeker is passionate about their work, this could be a place to learn how to better place them.
The manager might tell you:
- Times when the job seeker was frustrated.
- What types of teams the job seeker is best suited for.
Do you think the candidate has the skills required for this role?
While the answer could be a simple "yes" or "no" prompt. It's best to get the validation from the prior employer.
Learn how they think about their daily skills and activities on the job.
What did they do well?
Ask and let the reference tell you a story. If the reference doesn't tell you anything important. Or insightful. Try to use a follow up question like one of the following:
- When was a time they did really well?
- What was something significant they accomplished?
What did they do not so well?
Another question where the reference should provide the story. If they don't answer with a detailed response, try one of the following alternative questions:
- If you had to give this job seeker advice, what would it be?
Why did they leave their current position?
Listing the reason for leaving a job on a job application or in the job interview can be important. Asking this question to the reference will validate the job seekers resume and resume facts.
Can you tell me about their active-listening skills?
Try to promote the reference tell you a working scenario where the job seeker used active-listening skills.
Or if the job seeker provided them with active-listening skills on a regular basis.
Can you tell me about their communication skills?
Ask to tell a quick story regarding their communication skills. Was there times when their communication skills were outstanding? Or poor?
How did the job seeker handle running meetings?
Would you rehire them if you could?
A simple "yes" or "no" question. When the manager answers, it could be useful to ask follow up questions like these:
- What weaknesses do you think hurt them?
- Did they have the ability to speak to customers?
- How did their supervisor work with them?
- Was there anyone else this person worked with?
- Do you think they had all the resources they needed to do a great job?
Do you think they can do the job we're speaking about?
Asking this further into the conversation can ensure that the reference feels comfortable enough to reveal more about the job seeker in question.
You might get "yes" or "no" while asking. If you get a no, try to follow up with one of these questions:
- Why do you think they wouldn't be able to do the job?
- Is it related to their soft skills or hard skills?
- Do you think they could do the job in the future?
- Is it possible they could do the job with the right mentorship?
Are they reliable?
Determining if an employee is reliable is critical. Will they show up to the job? Will they promote well-being and collaboration with their team?
It's more than simply showing up on time. It's about embracing the company culture and being a key player on the team.
Are they dependable?
Will they be someone who stays with the company during hard times? Are they able to ride the wave of "ups and downs" appropriately?
When challenges happen, are they still motivated?
Ask this question in order to learn these insights.
Reference Check Tips
Simple tips for checking references.
- Start off with easy questions. Always start with questions that will open the conversation.
- Don't answer questions. Ask questions, don't answer them. Your questions should be open-ended not closed.
- Look for fake references. Is this a professional reference or a personal one?
- Reassure everyone of confidentiality. All questions will remain confidential. Inform the job seeker and the reference of that disclosure.
- Verify employment dates. A simple way to make sure the job seeker is honest with their resume and cover letter.
- Conduct reference checks by phone. Coordinate the date/time by email. And conduct the interview by phone.
- Take notes. Notes will help to reference the conversation at a later date.
Our favorite resources are included below.
Job interview resources
- Common Interview Questions by Marquette University
- Prepare for Behavioral Interview Questions by Marquette University
- Preparing for Job Interviews by the University of Kansas
- Mock Interview Handbook by CSUCI
- Interview Guidebook by Lebanon Valley College
Resume and cover letter resources
- Writing a Resume and Cover Letter by USC
- Resume Writing Tips by the University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Resume and Cover Letter Guide by Harvard University
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