Talent Acquisition

Reference Check Questions: What To Ask Before Hiring Someone

Asking the right reference check questions can help hiring managers view their top candidates better.

According to Wizehire’s  Small Business Report, 96% of employers will be hiring within the next six months. If you’re one of those employers planning to expand your team, you’ll want to ensure you’re hiring the right people for your roles. Reference checks are one way to evaluate candidates more thoroughly—but you’ll need to ask the right reference check questions.


  • Reference checks verify the accuracy of a candidate’s job experience.
  • Speaking with references gives you a clearer picture of a person’s overall behaviors.
  • You can avoid costly hiring mistakes by learning more about past work performance.

What Is a Reference Check?

A reference check is a step within the talent acquisition process that involves reaching out to former managers, co-workers, and others to learn more about a candidate’s strengths and experience. It typically takes place over the phone, and the reference is asked a series of questions. Reference checks are typically more time-efficient for all parties than collecting letters of recommendation, but they serve a similar purpose.

Employers typically request three references from candidates, with at least one ideally being a former manager. Direct reports, coworkers, and others with firsthand knowledge of the employee’s character can also act as references.

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What to Ask When Checking References

The goal of a reference check is to learn more about a candidate’s work performance and how they would fit on your team. But you’ll also want to tailor your questions to the open role. 

Review the job description for inspiration. You’ll want to weave in a few questions that focus on the most important skills for the role. For example, you may focus your questions on interpersonal skills for a role in a customer success department.

What Information Can an Employer Release for Employment Verification?

In most cases, an employer will only verify basic information such as the candidate’s employment dates, job title, and whether they are eligible for rehire. Each employer will have their own policy, and some may be willing to disclose additional details.  However, some states have introduced restrictions regarding the disclosure of salary information.

How to Conduct a Reference Check

Here are best practices for your consideration.

Introduce Yourself and the Purpose of the Call

Be friendly and give a quick introduction of who you are, who you’re calling about, and the purpose of the call. Be mindful of the person’s time by keeping it brief and sharing that you only ask for 10 to 15 minutes of their time.

Be Aware of Confidentiality Concerns

As mentioned, past employers are often limited in terms of what they are allowed to reveal. Many companies have policies regarding reference checks and confidentiality to protect employees’ privacy and limit liability.  If a reference states they can’t answer a question, respectfully move on.

Building your reference check questions around common privacy concerns is also helpful.  For example, instead of asking a candidate why they left their past role, ask the reference if the candidate is eligible for rehire or if they personally would be willing to rehire them. This can help you see whether they left on good terms without putting the reference in an awkward position to skirt around private personal matters or potentially violate their company’s reference policy.

Aim For Consistency With Your Questions

Try to stick to a consistent list of questions when checking references for a role. Though it’s alright to have different lists for different types of references: past managers, coworkers, character references, etc. Just be sure you ask all former managers, for instance, the same questions. 

A consistent list of questions helps employers maintain fair and comprehensive reference checks. If you improvise your questions, you’ll end up with skewed data. Having a longer talk with Candidate A’s former manager but skipping over several questions with Candidate B’s past manager can give Candidate A an advantage. You’ll have learned more about the first candidate and their strengths while potentially missing out on key information that may have helped Candidate B’s candidacy. 

Staying consistent can also minimize bias in your hiring process. People sometimes hold unconscious biases regarding the tasks and strengths they associate with different types of people. When you vary your questions too much for each candidate’s reference check, it’s easier for these biases to come out in your questions and unfairly impact the recruiting process.

Reference Check Questions to Ask Former Managers

1. What were [Candidate Name]’s primary daily tasks?

This question provides a quick overview of the candidate’s experience from the manager’s perspective, which may be different than the duties that the candidate emphasized during the interview.

2. Were they an independent worker or did they prefer more direction?

This question helps hiring managers learn more about the candidate’s preferred work style and how to manage them best. Neither option is bad, but it’s helpful to evaluate whether the candidate’s work style would mesh well with the manager they’d report to if hired.

3. How would you rate [Candidate Name]’s ability to manage their time? 

Time management is a big challenge for many people, and it can cause project delays and frustration with teammates. A former manager can speak to the candidate’s time management skills and whether they proactively communicated if there were concerns about deadlines or how to prioritize work tasks best.

4. How did [Candidate Name] respond to feedback?

Employees who are coachable and accept feedback well are generally easier to manage and will perform better long-term as they incorporate that feedback. However, receiving feedback can be discouraging or frustrating for many people. Hearing firsthand from the candidate’s past manager how they responded to and acted on feedback will help you understand how they’ll behave within your team, particularly in the early months when more feedback and learning are required.

5. How did [Candidate Name] grow or develop professionally at [Company]?

Professional development is important at all stages of someone’s career because there are always fresh developments to keep up with or opportunities to expand a skill set. Employees who are eager to learn and grow tend to be great workers. As such, it’s helpful to hear what areas the candidate focused on and how they developed their skills.

6. What were [Candidate Name]’s biggest strengths?

This is a good opportunity to see how the candidate’s current strengths match your needs for the role. For example, if you’re hiring a data analyst, you’ll want to hear that they have strong critical thinking and data management skills. 

7. What’s something you think [Candidate Name] could improve on?

References will want to speak highly of the candidate. The candidate wouldn’t list this person as a reference if they didn’t know they’d say good things about them. Therefore, asking about weaknesses often yields minimal results. 

This phrasing can feel more positive and elicit more honesty, as an area of improvement doesn’t have to be negative. They could be decent at it but could grow to be better. 

8. Would you be willing to rehire them in the future if a fitting opportunity comes up?

This is a good question to close out the reference check with. It should give you a clearer view of the manager’s overall opinion of the candidate. It may also give you some insight into the terms on which they left their previous employer.

Reference Check Questions to Ask Coworkers

1. How long did you work with [Candidate Name]?

This will help you measure how well the coworker knows the candidate and their work. Ideally, you’d want to talk to a coworker who’s worked with the candidate for a significant amount of time so that they have a good idea of the candidate’s skills and performance.

2. What was the most valuable quality they brought to your team?

In a team environment, each contributor brings something special. Coworkers can be a good source of information on this, as they often have a different perspective than managers. Maybe the candidate brought a positive spirit that uplifted the team, was knowledgeable about a certain program or process, and always helped everyone else out when they ran into questions.

3. How did [Candidate Name] support you as a coworker?

Part of being a team member is helping others when needed. This could come as moral support, teaching them something new, or a willingness to take something off a co-worker’s plate when swamped. Find out how the candidate supported their peers at work. 

4. What was the most challenging thing about working with them?

Even in positive co-worker relationships, challenges can arise due to differences in work or communication styles. When applicable, you may want to follow up on this question by asking how they overcame that challenge together.

Reference Check Questions to Ask Direct Reports

1. What was the biggest thing you learned from working under [Candidate Name]?

A great leader acts as a coach for their direct reports to help them learn and grow, so this question is a good way to see how well they accomplished that. How did they improve their subordinates or provide a meaningful lesson?

2. How would you describe their communication style as a manager?

Leadership’s communication can have a huge impact on your team. Employee engagement and retention can decline if managers aren’t communicating frequently and respectfully. As such, the insights of a former direct report can be incredibly valuable in ensuring that you’re hiring someone with strong communication skills and positive leadership.

3. Did you feel your manager listened to and considered your input or ideas?

Not feeling heard is one of the most common employee complaints, so it’s a good idea to see whether this could’ve been a concern during the previous manager-subordinate relationship.

4. Were they invested in your professional growth and development?

A great manager should be involved in and supportive of their direct report’s professional development and goals.

Reference Check Questions to Ask Character References

1. How long have you known [Candidate Name]?

This is a good way to ease into your questioning and better understand how well the reference knows the applicant. Those who’ve known the person for a longer time often know the person’s character better and can speak to their personal growth over time.

2. What is your relationship to [Candidate Name]?

It’s helpful to consider the character reference’s relationship with the applicant because it influences what information they can provide and how they answer your questions. 

3. How would you describe [Candidate Name]’s work ethic?

Character references may not have worked with the candidate professionally, but they often have observed their work ethic. They may know the candidate’s work ethic and dedication during school, athletics, hobbies, or volunteering.

4. In your experience, have they been reliable in following through with commitments?

We’ve all had a flakey friend at some point. You don’t have to work with someone to evaluate their reliability and follow through with commitments. If someone is dependable in their personal life, there’s a good chance it’ll carry over to their work.

Pros and Cons of Reference Checks


Reference checks can be an invaluable tool when you need to hire new employees; here are some of the top benefits:

  • Simplifying selection: Reference checks help hiring managers who are having trouble choosing between a few great candidates.
  • Verifying key information: Sometimes, candidates stretch the truth, but reference checks can verify important details such as employment dates, title, and primary responsibilities.
  • Evaluating fit: Speaking to former team members can help employers determine how the candidate would fit with their team culture.
  • Getting to know the candidate: We all put our best foot forward during job interviews, but references can speak to the applicant’s day-to-day work ethic and behavior to give you a better view of what they’re like.


Reference checks certainly have their benefits, but there are some drawbacks to keep in mind, including: 

  • You may not get the full picture: Applicants will generally only list references they know will speak highly of them, so reference checks often won’t provide much insight into the candidate’s weaknesses.
  • Information limitations: References may not be able to answer all of your questions, and you will often not be able to talk to the employee’s most recent manager if they’re still employed.
  • Adding time to the recruiting process: Checking references can be time-consuming and often requires playing phone tag to reach the listed references.

If time is a concern, you may choose to use digital questionnaires in place of traditional reference check phone calls. This is more impersonal but does not require schedule alignment and may be quicker for references.

Wize Words

Great talent exists, but identifying the best fit for your team’s needs can be tricky. Checking references is one way to make better hires by ensuring that a candidate possesses the skills and attributes they’ll need to succeed in the open role.

Reference check questions help you see the candidate from different perspectives—peer, manager, and employee—to make a well-informed hiring decision.


  • Kaylyn McKenna

    Kaylyn McKenna is an experienced writer who specializes in HR and workplace topics, such as employee engagement, workplace policies, recruiting strategy, and DE&I. Her work has been featured on TechRepublic, Business News Daily, and Business Management Daily.

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The article was reviewed by Marisa Ramirez

Kaylyn McKenna

Kaylyn McKenna is an experienced writer who specializes in HR and workplace topics, such as employee engagement, workplace policies, recruiting strategy, and DE&I. Her work has been featured on TechRepublic, Business News Daily, and Business Management Daily.

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