5 reference check questions you should always ask

5 reference check questions you should always ask

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I recently started a new position to lead the marketing efforts at a home care services organization, The CareSide, headquartered in Australia. As the first full-time marketing hire, I was responsible for building a new marketing department from scratch. On the one hand, this was exciting. I had the autonomy to structure the team how I wanted and hire people I thought would complement each other well. On the other hand, it was daunting. There wasn’t an established HR manager I could rely on. And if I didn’t select the right people, then ultimately I was accountable.

Throughout my experiences hiring for my new team, one thing has become clear: reference checks are one of the most important parts of the process.

What are reference checks?

Reference checks are conversations with applicants’ previous professional connections, or forms filled out by those connections. Companies ask candidates to provide a list of people they can contact to learn more about their professional background, and the hiring manager or HR team will either send a form, start an email thread, or request a phone or video call.

Typically, reference checks are one of the final steps in the hiring process. Many companies will wait until they’ve narrowed it down to the top candidate to do reference checks—but I do things a little differently.

I think if you wait until you only have one candidate to do reference checks, you’re prone to fall victim to confirmation bias. You’ve already earmarked one person as your first choice, so you’re unlikely to change your opinion unless something goes terribly wrong. We want to believe we’re a good judge of character, after all, and there’s also the issue of sunk cost.

In any employment reference check, your objective should be to learn more about what it would be like to work with the person and uncover any blind spots you might have missed during the interview. And I think doing that earlier in the process helps you do just that.

How to do an employment reference check

Reference checks are most commonly done in two ways: a phone/video call or an email/form. 

A company recently contacted me to provide a reference for a person I worked with. Below is a screenshot of the reference check email they sent, which included a link to an online form. 

An email asking for a reference check

This can work well because it’s efficient for the hiring team. You simply send the email and wait for the response to come through. But it’s also asking a lot of the other person. In this example, the online form they provided took me over an hour to complete.

I like to speak with references instead—I think you learn more nuanced information that way, and it’s usually quicker for the other person. But this all comes down to personal preference and company policy (there might also be more unconscious bias at play in a phone or video call). 

5 reference check questions to help you find the right hire

Reference checks aren’t just about deciding who to hire—they can also help you learn how to start someone off on the right foot when they join your team. These are the five reference check questions I’ve found to be the most effective.

1. What is your relationship with the candidate? When did you work together and for how long?

It may sound obvious, but you need to know who you’re speaking with. Is the person their former manager, a peer, or a client? Did they work together recently, or has it been many years since they were at the same company? This context can help you determine how much weight you want to give their answers to certain questions. 

2. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best [role] you’ve worked with, how would you rate this person’s [role] skills? Why would you give them this rating, and what would it take for them to improve?

This question forces a more nuanced answer compared to an alternative such as “Are they a strong [whatever the skill is]?” And it can be used to evaluate hard or soft skills.

I was seeking ratings of 8+, but remember that a scale is always subjective. When I was hiring for a writer, for example, I gave more weight if the review came from an editor or someone with a journalism or content marketing background. (That’s question #1 coming in handy!)

Even though nearly everyone received high marks for that writer role, I did get some insightful feedback beyond the numerical rating. For example, one reference mentioned the candidate’s writing could be wordy at times and often needed to be reviewed by an experienced editor. Another stated the person sometimes struggled to match their writing tone with the brand voice. These aren’t necessarily dealbreakers, but they helped provide additional insights. If I hired those people, I knew what they needed to be trained up on from the get go.

3. What skills would the candidate need to strengthen for them to reach their full potential?

When I first started doing reference checks years ago, I would ask the standard boilerplate question: “what are their weaknesses?” But in my experience, people are expecting this question and often come prepared with rehearsed or insincere responses (e.g., the classic “She’s a perfectionist!”). Phrasing the question more positively, so that it focuses on areas for improvement rather than weaknesses, helps set the stage for a more constructive discussion. 

I also like to preface the question with an example of feedback my previous manager gave me that included an area of professional development I was continuing to work on. I want to make it clear that I know that needing to strengthen skills is universal—in the hopes that it makes references feel comfortable being honest with their answer.

Using this approach, I learned new information about each candidate that I could never have picked up on during an interview. For example, one reference mentioned the applicant was very efficient at completing her tasks but sometimes struggled with delegating work to others and trusting them. In a different conversation, I found out a candidate’s deferential nature sometimes meant he placed a greater emphasis on agreeing with the ideas of others over his own. His room for growth was learning that empathy and assertiveness are not mutually exclusive. 

4. What advice would you give their future manager?

There’s a learning curve anytime you’re working with someone new. It takes time to learn about their communication style, how they handle disagreements, and what brings out their best work. This question can help accelerate that learning curve, so you can thoughtfully onboard and get them up to speed.

5. What kind of company would they be a good fit at? What type of company would be a challenge for them?

Although our business is past the early-stage startup phase, the marketing team is nascent. In that sense, the work environment has a startup feel. We don’t have established processes and organizational structure yet. I wanted to hire someone who was self-disciplined and comfortable with ambiguity. While this question doesn’t directly ask about that, it still gets me the information I need.

It’s important to remember that someone’s resume or portfolio doesn’t tell the whole story. Just because they’ve previously worked for a big company doesn’t mean they won’t thrive in a startup environment. Alternatively, some people with startup experience may do better in a more structured environment. 

This question forced me to eliminate one candidate. She had the necessary skills, but according to her previous manager, she struggled with the lack of organization at the last startup she worked for. Although she was able to adapt and make the situation work, it wasn’t ideal for her.

Tips for conducting an employee reference check

If the questions above work for you, go ahead and use them. But if you’d like to come up with your own, here are some tips for how to develop reference check questions to ask.

Avoid leading questions

The first few times I did reference checks I felt like I was wasting my time. Each reference spoke highly of the person, which is to be expected to a certain extent, but I didn’t learn any new information. Here are some examples of the questions I asked:

  • How well do they work with others? Are they humble?

  • How comfortable are they navigating ambiguity?

  • Would you enthusiastically rehire this person?

Can you see the problem? I was asking leading questions that made it easy to infer the responses I wanted to hear. You’re not trying to trick the person, by any means, but you also don’t want to hand them their answer on a silver platter.

Share information before asking questions

You can only get an honest answer if the other person feels comfortable speaking openly. I try to set the tone at the start of each call. For the senior content marketing manager role, here’s the gist of what I said:

“Hi [name], thanks so much for joining the call. I appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to chat with me today. First, I’d like to acknowledge how impressed I’ve been with [candidate name]. I had a chance to review her portfolio and speak with her last week. We’ve received more than 1,000 applications for the senior content marketing manager position, so it’s been very competitive, and she’s stood out as one of the top candidates. I imagine you’ll have some positive things to say about her, and I’d like to learn more about those. My goal with this conversation isn’t to determine if she’s qualified. I can already see that she is. Instead, I’d like to learn more about your experience working with her, determine if this role matches her skills and career goals, and learn what would be the best ways to onboard and integrate her into the team if we were to hire her.”

I would follow this introduction by providing additional context about the job, company, and overall work environment. For example, I let them know this would be the second person to join the marketing team, so the person needed to be hands-on and eager to roll up their sleeves. 

By complimenting the candidate and sharing information about the team dynamics, my goal was to establish trust. If I came across as skeptical or immediately jumped into questions, then the other person would be more likely to revert to canned responses. Effective relationships involve emotional reciprocity. By balancing the extent to which I empathized with their perspective and expressed my own needs, I was aiming to create a better two-way channel for the communication of thoughts and feelings.  

Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification

We’ve all been there. We ask a question. Someone responds, but their answer is vague or doesn’t fully address what was asked. They may even reflect with “Does that answer your question?”

Normally in these situations, we want to be polite and give an affirmative answer so we can move on. Reference checks are the time to go against this instinct. Ask probing questions if anything is unclear or you didn’t get the information you need. 

Here are some diplomatic ways to do so:

Even then, you might not get a satisfying answer. But while you have the reference on the line, do your best to nudge the conversation in a direction that will help you make an informed decision.

That’s what I tried to do throughout the hiring process for this recent content marketing manager role at The CareSide. It helped, and the reference checks were much more productive—but it still felt like a work in progress. Not every question I asked helped me decide who to hire, so I’ll likely adjust my approach again in the future. For example, I’d like to learn more about each person’s career goals. I plan to ask about this the next time I speak with someone’s former manager. That way, I can know if our company will likely offer the types of growth opportunities the candidate is seeking.

Make your reference checks count

Reference checks are the one time you get to learn about a candidate from anyone other than the candidate themselves. Make it count by ensuring that your reference check questions are going to get you the answers you really need to help you make a hiring decision—and support your new employee once they’re part of the team.

This was a guest post from Henry Butler, Chief Marketing Officer of The CareSide, a leading home care provider in Australia with offices throughout the country.

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