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Reference Check: Your Trusted Hiring Sidekick

Employee reference check form

An interview and resume can only tell you so much about a candidate. Statistics say 55% of Americans have lied on their resume at least once. It’s a gamble to hire someone you aren’t entirely sure can fulfill the responsibilities you’re asking of them. Hiring employees is expensive enough. The last thing you want is to realize that your candidates aren’t as competent as they said they were. 

What tools can you use to help prevent these hiring problems? One option is reference checks.

In the past, reference checks were always the norm. But recently, more HR professionals have started skipping it, as it can be time-consuming and some references can be unresponsive. 

Then again, reference checks can be helpful to pursue, even if you don’t always get an answer. Let us show you why.

What is a Reference Check? 

A reference check helps you to verify an applicant’s background, skills, and performance from past managers, supervisors, colleagues, and schools. It builds your confidence in hiring the right person for the job. You can conduct a reference check over the phone, via email, or through specialized reference-checking apps. 

Some HR professionals are opposed to reference checks for several reasons. One is due to the likelihood of hearing the references’ honest feedback, as candidates may choose people they know will support them. Another point is that reference checks may not reveal anything new about the candidate.  

The truth is reference checks can be a helpful part of the hiring decision. You can use it to understand how to best manage and utilize potential employees.

What Should You Ask in a Reference Check?

Your reference check questions should directly relate to the applicant’s qualifications and job performance, to be fair to the applicant and prevent legal issues. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission protects applicants’ rights to privacy by prohibiting intrusive questions that may lead to inappropriate or irrelevant discussions. As such, it’s better to revolve your questions around the following:



How often is the candidate late for work, if at all? Do they always meet their deadlines? The answers to these questions can give you a sense of how well the applicant manages their time. 

Key skills

Questions about essential skills will depend on what you label “key” for the job. If you’re hiring a paralegal, it may help to ask questions involving their attention to detail and analytical skills.


What has the applicant done to provide more value to their company? Exceptional candidates often do more than what’s required of them. These are the A-players you want for your company. 


What is the applicant’s workplace behavior with their colleagues? How do they approach their work? A behavioral assessment for work is a helpful tool to gauge this, but getting a sense of the applicant’s attitude toward work helps you know how well they’ll get along with other employees. 

Other issues

What else would you like to know about the candidate? As with job interviews, be knowledgeable about questions not to ask, to avoid discrimination claims.

When Should You Conduct Reference Checks? 

Reference checks usually happen after initial resume screening and conducting assessment tests and interviews. The candidate’s skills and experience should already be clear by this stage, but a reference check becomes a way to validate your assumptions.

After interviewing candidates, let them know your plan to check with their references. While you may already feel they’re the right fit for the role post-interview, a reference check can help you feel more confident about your decision.

Tips for Conducting a Reference Check 

Reference checks paint a more complete picture of the candidate. Here are a few ways to help you conduct an effective one.

1. Interview at least two references 

Two is better than one. Asking the candidate to provide at least two references—ideally, a previous manager and colleague—gives you an insight into what it’s like to work with the candidate.


However, not all past employers will agree to become a reference. Some may only confirm employment dates and some may not reply at all. This shouldn’t discourage you from reaching out; confirming dates can help you verify the candidate’s experience.

2. Seek input from the interview team 

Your colleagues from the interview team will have feedback about the candidate. Do they have any unresolved concerns? Is there any detail in the candidate’s interview responses they want to follow up on? 

These types of feedback help focus your attention, resulting in a better approach to making reference checks. 

3. Ask about the candidate’s behavior

When you ask questions about the candidate, don’t forget to weave in questions that give insight about their work behavior. You can ask for specific instances when they overcame setbacks or took the initiative to provide more value to their clients.

4. Ask specific but open-ended questions

If you want a vague answer, asking, “Tell me about [Candidate],” is an efficient way to do that. The same goes for questions answerable with Yes or No. Before you know it, your conversation with the references is over. 

Instead, refer to previous scenarios that illustrate the candidate’s work behavior. You may also prompt the reference for further details about a project in the applicant’s portfolio. What, Why, and How questions often trigger an opportunity for a longer conversation about the candidate’s background. 

10 Sample Reference Check Questions

If you still aren’t sure what to ask, here are a few questions to ask for reference checks:

  1. What positions and responsibilities did the candidate hold at your company?
  2. In what ways did you and the candidate work together?
  3. Is this candidate eligible for rehire?
  4. What areas or responsibilities do you feel the candidate would need extra support in their first 90 days?
  5. What was the candidate’s most valuable accomplishment while working for you? 
  6. How did the candidate handle work-related setbacks and stress?
  7. How did the candidate navigate and resolve conflicts and disagreements?
  8. How much supervision did they require to accomplish their tasks?

Boost Your Hiring Confidence with Reference Checks

No employer wants to make a hiring mistake. Having reference checks in your hiring process may help you prevent a costly hiring mistake and it builds your confidence in knowing you made the right decision.

Even when references are helpful with information about a candidate, adding a pre-employment assessment test to the hiring process is the best practice.

EmployTest offers pre-employment tests that help streamline recruitment, including behavior and skills tests. Take a free sample test to understand how it can support your hiring strategy.