Checking References? Top 12 Questions to Ask.


Hasty appointments can cost a company enormously in money, but potentially more in business performance and staff morale.

There are many reasons why a new employee can destabilize the workplace and so  it makes checking references an essential part of the employment process and it’s critical to get it right.

How can you get it right?

Well it is just as much about not getting it wrong, as it is about getting it right. You will get it wrong potentially by either asking questions that don’t provide the right  information, or by asking the right questions, but not delving further to get the clearest picture possible.

3 considerations in the process:

  • The referee names provided by the candidate really are not worth using as they will provide a biased opinion.
  • Ask for names of previous leaders they were a direct report to, previous peers or colleagues and previous direct reports. All need to be provided from their previous employer.
  • Email or call to make a time to speak to the referee and provide the questions before the call to accommodate time for the referee to check information.

Some questions to consider:

  • What’s your relationship with the applicant? Confirm dates of employment and job title. It is also worth checking pay rate at the time of leaving the company.

These questions will verify the information provided by the candidate in their CV. It is essential that all information, including qualifications, are checked for validity.

  • Any absenteeism, punctuality or attendance issues?

This may highlight a lack of commitment, or focus on career. It may also highlight any issues beyond the workplace. Need to be careful here though not to delve beyond your scope.

  • Strengths? Any areas that you would recommend for support?
  • How do they manage change?

Change is a day to day occurrence. It may be as simple as a change in meeting time/date change or larger change such as procedure or policy. It is important to know if your candidate is adaptable and can accommodate change.

  • How does the candidate relate to others?

This provides an opening for the referee to demonstrate their knowledge of the candidates influence on others, engagement with others, their ‘teamness’ or leadership capabilities.

  • Difficult projects and how they made it/them successful.

Everyone has difficult projects/tasks/targets. It is important to know if the candidate perseveres to solve the problem, tries alternative methods. Does the candidate show determination to complete a difficult task?

  • How do they handle communication/miscommunication? 

This question is another about adaptability in the workplace.

  • One or two words to describe personality and why?
  • How do they handle frustration? Or stress?

Stress is in every workplace to some extent or other. Everyone handles dealing with stress differently, and what may stress me may not stress you. However, how we manage stress overtly can directly affect others. It’s important to know.

  • Could they benefit from professional mentoring?

Every employee will benefit from being involved in professional learning. However, if it is identified as a need, whilst not a negative on its own, it is still worth exploring, even if to continue the offer in the new role.

  • Does this person achieve sales targets? Or other relevant targets?

Are they driven to succeed? Is success important to them?

  • If in a position to do so, would you hire or rehire?

I find this question to be the most important of all. I have found on many occasions that a referee generally cannot respond to this question except with the truth. Of all the questions this one is definitely the deal breaker.

Granted that a candidate with positive responses to all of the above will be quite unique. However, the questions are offered as a means of providing sufficient information about the candidate to ensure that the match is a good one, not only in terms of experience and qualifications, but in company culture, values and expectations too.

Have I left anything out? Let me know what you think needs including.

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