Checking references can be time-consuming, but it is a vital part of the hiring process if you want to make sure you're choosing the right candidate. This guide will help you understand what questions you can and cannot ask employee references to ensure you conduct an effective background check before you make your next hire. We have also included sample reference check questions you can use to make the process a bit easier.

Reference check dos and don'ts:

1. Do your own reference check

2. Be creative

3. Keep the reference checking legal

4. Communication is key

5. Asking the right reference check questions

6. Reference check sample question

Do your own reference check

When interviewing, it’s in your company’s best interest to get the facts directly from the sources, and a reference check is one of the best insurance policies you have to prevent bad hires. It is far more effective if you:

  • Do the reference check yourself: If the new employee will be reporting directly to you, then you should be the person who checks the references
  • Work around time constraints: If time is of the essence and you really do have to assign the task of checking references, then compromise by assigning just part of the reference check to a capable assistant. Handle as much as you can by yourself
  • Aim high: It’s always good to speak with those who have managed your potential employee. Make sure you speak to your counterpart to ensure an open conversation as there will be common ground between you

Related: 5 interview task examples that will help you choose the right candidate

Be creative

It pays to think laterally when conducting reference checks. Whilst HR departments can confirm the position and dates of employment of the candidate, they won't have the right insight to rate previous employees on their job performance and ability. So, who do you get an honest and reliable reference from?

  • The obvious: These are the references the candidate gives you. Be sure to work your way through their entire list. The more responses you get, the easier it will be to get a fair representation of the candidate
  • Their boss: Speak to their line manager and the person they report to as these are the people who should know the candidate’s work the best
  • Your counterpart: The person who does the same work you do at the company you’re contacting for a reference is likely to be completely honest with you. Call it a form of kinship
  • Get personal: You can reach out to relatives and teachers if it's likely relevant information will be revealed, but this should only be done in exceptional cases as a last resort
  • Your own contacts: Your friends or friends’ friends may know the candidate or someone at their company

By understanding the basics and sticking to some of the same standards you follow for other hiring activities, the call will be less intimidating and easier to manage. Here are some tips you can follow:

  • Be discrete: Any information gleaned from references is confidential, and should not be discussed with other employees in your organisation
  • Check with the candidate: It is best practice to get the candidate’s written permission first. This way, you can check the details they’ve supplied and contact additional reference sources if necessary
  • Take caution: The same discrimination laws apply to reference check questions as to interviewing. Do not ask about marital status, age, religion, disabilities or national origin
  • Ask a lawyer: It is always a good idea to review your reference checking procedures with your legal team

Communication is key

One to one contact is best and when it comes to references, there are no shortcuts. The passive approach (written references) and the high-tech approach (email) cannot guarantee thorough, trustworthy references. You’ll always need to communicate with someone directly and verbally to gather the best information. You should:

  • Embrace the hard way: Letters or emails sent to companies are usually ignored. A reference check is best done by verbally connecting with a real person
  • Pick up the phone: Calling the referee gives you the opportunity to ask spontaneous reference check questions. You will also have the added advantage of being able to detect enthusiasm – or lack of it – in the referee’s voice

By conducting an effective reference check, you will have the confidence to decide whether the prospective job candidate should become your new employee. 

Asking the right reference check questions

All you can do as an employer is ask the right reference check questions and see how referees respond. As you look to solidify your view of a candidate, there are certain reference check questions you should always ask, that differ from asking interview questions.

Basic reference check questions to ask

First of all, you need to establish that the information provided by the job candidate on their CV and application form is accurate. When carrying out a reference check, review the dates of employment, job titles and duties carefully to ensure they haven't embellished their record.

1. How long did the candidate work for your organisation?

2. What was the nature of the candidate's role at your organisation.

3. How much was the candidate paid?

4. Did they receive bonuses or overtime payments in addition to this?

5. Where was the candidate employed before joining your organisation?

Important reference check questions to ask

In order to learn more about your potential hire, it may be necessary to ask some more probing questions when conducting your reference check. This can tell you about their ability to do the job you are advertising.

6. How often was the employee absent from work?

7. Did the candidate have any weaknesses?

8. How does the candidate compare to their colleagues/ their replacement?

9. What steps did the candidate take to ensure urgent tasks were delivered on time.

10. Would you rehire the candidate in future?

These reference check questions are a good starting point as you look to gain a clearer understanding of the potential employee - who they are, what they can do, and how they do it. You can learn a little about their motivations, and determine whether they will be a good fit for your organisation.

There may be other questions you wish to ask, which relate specifically to the person you are considering hiring. Examples might relate to their leadership skills, their career development with their previous employer, and their personality around the office.

The more reference check questions you ask, the more you may find out. It will be up to the referee as to how they respond, and this may depend on time constraints as well as their opinion of the candidate. But you would hope that referees would take the time to reward exceptional people - those who have added value to their organisation - by writing or providing them a superb reference check.

For more information please contact us here at Robert Half, and for more hiring advice please visit our hiring and management advice page.