How to Check References: The Best Questions to Ask When Screening Candidates

  When it comes to your recruiting process, nothing is more important than vetting and validating your candidates.  Just because someone seems like a perfect fit on paper, doesn’t mean they’re accurately representing their skills and experience. To hire great people, you need to know which questions to ask when checking references for your candidates. 

The Importance of Screening Candidates 

Several years ago, I worked with a seemingly exceptional candidate. He impressed our clients and two companies were interested in hiring him.  But when one hiring manager asked whether the candidate’s current boss would be willing to serve as a reference, he admitted that he no longer worked at the company.  He had represented himself as being gainfully employed throughout the interview process and withheld important information about his relationship to his former boss. The hiring manager rescinded the offer, and the candidate missed out on a great opportunity because he wasn’t honest about his position.  It was an unfortunate circumstance for both the candidate and the client. Recruiting requires an investment of time and money, so it’s important to verify what candidates are telling you. You don’t want to find your “ideal candidate,” only to discover they’ve misrepresented their experience and achievements.  Unfortunately, people lie about where they worked, hoping that a prospective employer won’t look too closely at their résumé. Knowing how to check references thoroughly will prevent you from wasting time and will help you find the right hire that much faster. 

How to Check References for a Potential Hire

By the time you’re contacting a candidate’s references, you’ve likely gotten a feel for who they are. The reference check is an opportunity to validate your instincts and confirm that they’ve been honest about their backgrounds.  Use this opportunity to get to know a candidate better and ask open-ended, probing questions about who they are. Avoid asking yes-no questions as much as possible, because those won’t give you the insights you want. 

“Just because someone seems like a perfect fit on paper, doesn’t mean they’re accurately representing their skills and experience.”

Open the conversation by telling them what company you’re calling from and the position for which you’re hiring. Provide context on the role, including responsibilities, special projects and any other key components.  This will help the reference person speak to your specific needs. The responses they would give regarding a Controller position might be different than for a Director of Technical Accounting position, so being specific will yield the most valuable insights. 

The Most Important Questions to Ask When Checking References 

At BVOH Finance & Accounting Search, we call candidates’ references on behalf of our clients, so we can give our client insight as to what it’s like to work with this person and also corroborate information that the candidate has provided.  During those calls, we ask about a candidate’s strengths, weaknesses and workplace temperament. This gives us better insight into a person’s abilities, and it illuminates the truth about their previous role. Then, we can come to clients with honest, nuanced recommendations and assure them that a candidate is being accurately represented.  The following are questions we’ve found to be particularly useful: 

Where do you see development opportunities for this person? 

You don’t just want to hear someone lavish praise on a candidate. It’s more helpful to understand where they have room for growth. The first priority is ensuring they have the skills to fulfill the role for which you’re hiring. But people also need to be challenged in new positions, so it’s best if their growth areas align with the challenges inherent in this job.  However, you also want to know if someone will put in the work to improve. Has the reference shared an area in which they saw the candidate grow while with their organization? Were they self-motivated to improve? Or did they drag their feet until they were forced to develop the skill? 

What can I expect from working with this candidate? 

Ask open-ended questions about the candidate’s experiences with the company. If the reference person gives short answers, ask them to give examples. For instance, if the person is deadline-oriented, request details on a time when they hit an important deadline and how they did it. 

How does their real world performance match up to what’s on their résumé? 

Review the list of achievements the candidate listed on their résumé and verify them with the reference. Inquire about the candidate’s role in each initiative to ensure they’ve been truthful about their abilities. 

Can you describe the candidate’s interpersonal skills? 

Find out how well a candidate got along with their peers and management. Was there friction between them and a colleague? Were they well-liked and respected? Did they go out of their way to boost morale, help their team members or foster a sense of inclusion? You don’t just want adjectives here, you want concrete examples of how they interacted with their colleagues.  Asking open-ended questions is important because candidates aren’t likely to give you references who will speak negatively about them. Yes-no questions give you a limited view into someone’s capabilities, but probing deeper will reveal important character traits that will influence your hiring decision.  However, it’s best to start with a standard set of questions for each candidate. You’ll have an easier time deciding between two great people if you’re comparing the same answer set and can examine responses for each person side by side. 

How Much Weight Should You Give Reference Checks?

By the time you’re checking someone’s references, you’ve likely met them in person and developed your own picture of who they are. Ideally, the reference check will simply validate your impression so that you can confidently make them an offer.  However, this step could also raise flags that you need to address before you’ve committed to bringing the person on board.  Bear in mind, however, that reference checks are one component in a larger process. They are important, but put them in context. When you speak with someone’s reference, you may find their manner brusque or off-putting, but don’t let that sway you against a good candidate.  Some references enjoy chatting about past employees while others are busy and want to get off the phone as quickly as possible. To avoid being biased against a good candidate, take notes on what the person says so you can get past their demeanor. Then you can refer to those facts when making your final decision.  The value of reference checks will also depend on the candidate’s current circumstances. If someone is working at a local company, the recruiter or hiring manager may know someone there and can do an informal check on how the person is perceived there. But if someone is unemployed, the reference check will carry a little more weight, since you don’t have an immediate frame of reference for who they are.  When you know which questions to ask to check references, you make the most of those conversations and get that much closer to choosing the right candidate. Understanding how to check references comes down to asking open-ended questions and being consistent with each interview. Then you’ll have quality data that will illuminate which candidate is truly best suited to your company.  

Schedule a consultation

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Connect With Us

Whether you’re ready to hire or just want to strategize, our recruiters are always available to listen. Let’s talk. No strings attached.

Home / How to Check References: The Best Questions to Ask When Screening Candidates