The Best Questions a Reference Checker Can Ask

A hiring manager asks reference check questions.

Asking the right reference check questions before you extend a job offer is crucial if you want to make sure that your preferred candidate is all they say they are.

In fact, one of the most popular internet searches is “how to lie on a resume without getting caught” and 55% of job seekers admit to lying on their application materials. The most common categories applicants lie about include:

  • Experience and skills
  • Degrees earned
  • Personal details, including name, address, and age
  • Salary information
  • Technical skills

Job seekers even lie about their references, making up names and asking friends to pose as a former boss or coworker. This is just one reason why talking to references is such a crucial part of verifying applicant resumes, an essential step in the candidate screening process, that is too often skipped or done in a very cursory way.

In addition to checking up on your top candidates’ veracity, reference interviews can also provide valuable information about an applicant’s interpersonal skills and other attributes that can make them stand out or come up short. Asking the right reference check questions can provide the information you need to zero in on the most qualified candidate.

Why Are Reference Checks Important?

Typical costs of a bad hire can range from at least $4,000 per hire to as much as two to three times the employee’s salary, depending on their role and how much damage they manage to do before their departure.

By asking the right reference check questions, you can determine whether:

  • The information they’ve shared in their application materials is accurate.
  • The candidate has the qualifications required for the role.
  • The applicant can do all they claim they can.
  • They have the soft skills needed to thrive in your company culture.

Legal Considerations

Failing to use “reasonable care” during the hiring process may leave you vulnerable to a claim of negligent hiring if an employee you hire ends up harming a customer or coworker. A thorough candidate vetting process that includes a reference check can help to defend against such claims.

Are There Reference Check Questions You Can’t Ask?

Federal and state laws prohibit employers from asking questions during reference checks that might be seen as an attempt to determine whether a candidate is a member of a group that is protected under the U.S. Equal Employment Law, such as age, cultural identity, or religious affiliation. Keep questions focused on job qualifications and avoid asking personal information.

In some states making an offer contingent upon a reference check can create a legal relationship between the employer and employee and leave you legally vulnerable should you need to rescind the offer.

Best Practices

  • Ask for a range of references (for example, a former or current supervisor, a direct report, and a colleague).
  • Prepare questions ahead of time and have them in front of you before you make each call.
  • Keep your questions focused on skills, qualifications, and accomplishments.
  • Ask follow-up questions.
  • Avoid yes or no questions.
  • Take notes.

7 Questions to Ask During a Reference Check

Some companies only allow current employees to confirm start and departure dates and job titles. Asking the right questions in the right order can save time.

1. Do you mind if I verify some of your background information?

Since more than 20% of applicants lie about the references they provide, verify the details provided by the applicant with the reference. If the reference cannot provide these details or hesitates before answering, there may be an issue.

Follow-up Questions

  • How do you spell your name?
  • What is your current title and role?
  • How long have you held that title?
  • What was your title and role at the time that you worked with the applicant?

2. Is there any information you are prohibited from sharing during a reference check due to company policy?

This will save time that you might otherwise spend asking for information they are prohibited from providing. Keep in mind that a growing number of states prohibit employers from asking about previous salary information during the hiring process.

Follow-up Questions

  • Are there former colleagues who no longer work for the company who might be able to provide more information?
  • Can you confirm the candidate’s start and departure dates and job title?

These questions can help determine how the applicant is to work with, as well as their strengths as a team player or leader.

Follow-up Questions

  • How long did you work with the candidate?
  • Was the candidate a direct report, your direct supervisor, or a peer?
  • How often did you interact with the candidate during a typical day or week?
  • How collaborative is the candidate?

4. What are the candidate’s skills and qualifications?

In addition to allowing you to verify information provided on the applicant’s resume, these reference check questions provide an opportunity to see the applicant as their former colleagues see them.

Follow-up Questions

  • What were the candidate’s daily responsibilities?
  • What kinds of projects did they take part in or oversee?
  • What was the most valuable quality the candidate brought to your organizational mission?
  • What are some areas where the candidate could still improve their skills?

5. How adaptable is the candidate?

This will show how well the applicant troubleshoots and whether they embrace innovation, change, and professional development opportunities.

Follow-up Questions

  • What challenges did they face and how did they overcome them?
  • How did their performance improve while they were employed with your organization?
  • Can you provide an example of a time when they solved a problem creatively?

6. Is this candidate a good fit for the role in question?

This question will require you to briefly describe the skills required for the role. You might even paraphrase the candidate’s explanation of why they are well suited for the job.

Follow-up Questions

  • If you had a similar role available in your organization, would you consider this candidate for that role? Why or why not?
  • What skills needed in their current or most recent role with your organization are similar to those required for the position in question?
  • Do you think they will succeed in this position? Why or why not?
  • What elements of this role do you think will be the biggest challenge for them?

7. On what terms did the candidate leave your workplace?

Now that you’ve developed a rapport, make sure the candidate’s explanation for how they left their last employer matches with the reference’s understanding of the situation.

Follow-up Questions

  • If you are contacting a current employer, you can ask: Why do you think they are pursuing an outside opportunity?
  • If you could re-hire this applicant, would you?
  • May I follow up with you if I have additional questions?

Before You Can Vet Right-Fit Candidates, You Need to Find Them

Now that you know how to ask the right reference check questions, remember that Monster can get you to the candidate vetting stage faster with job listings targeted to suit your hiring needs.

Legal Disclaimer: This article is not intended as a substitute for professional legal advice. Always seek the advice of an attorney regarding any legal questions you may have.