Organizational Wellness

12 Must-Ask Reference Check Questions for Effective Hiring

May 17, 2024
Last Updated May 17, 2024

Imagine that you have a candidate with an impeccable resume and a compelling cover letter who also has an impressive interview. The immediate impulse might be to hire them on the spot! However, a crucial step remains to confirm you've found the ideal candidate: the reference check.

References are there for you to learn if someone could add to your work environment. The trick is determining what to say to get the valuable insights you need. Discover 12 must-ask reference questions and best practices for the entire hiring process. 


What Are Reference Check Questions?

References are people the candidate has provided for you to reach out to during the hiring process. Typically, HR departments prefer references from individuals who have worked closely with the candidate, occasionally including character references. You would typically only contact these individuals when you’re considering extending an offer to someone. 

A reference check is when you discuss the candidate with the provided reference. Doing this allows you to verify a candidate’s honesty and get real insights into how they perform in a work environment. This individual can tell you what it’s like to work with someone and maybe even mention interesting skills that didn’t come up in the interview. Additionally, you could also learn how someone responds to feedback and challenges. 

12 Must-Ask Reference Check Questions

Before you ever pick up the phone to speak with a reference, consider what you’re going to say. Most likely, you’ll want to be armed with an arsenal of great questions. Here are 12 must-ask ones to get you started: 

  • Can you confirm the candidate’s job title, dates of employment, and the nature of their role within your organization?
  • If you could hire this candidate again, would you? Why or why not? 
  • Can you tell me something about this candidate that might not be listed on their resume?
  • Did this candidate have any major accomplishments while working for you? 
  • What are the candidate’s greatest strengths, and how did they leverage these strengths in their role? 
  • Can you speak to the candidate's communication skills, both in terms of written and verbal communication?
  • Can you share an example of a challenging situation the candidate faced while working for your organization and how they handled it?
  • Were there any areas where the candidate needed improvement or additional support, and how did they address these areas?
  • Did the candidate work effectively as part of a team, or did they excel in individual roles?
  • Were there any instances of leadership or initiative demonstrated by the candidate in their role?
  • Can you provide feedback on the candidate's punctuality, attendance, and reliability?

Reference Check Questions by Role

Depending on the references you want, you may find it helpful to cater your questions to their roles. Here are some example questions like that: 

Manager or Supervisor

  • Can you tell me something about this candidate that might not be listed on their resume?
  • How did this candidate handle challenges?
  • Why did this candidate leave your company?


  • Tell me about when you and the candidate worked together
  • How would you describe working with the candidate on a team or on a project together? 
  • Is there anyone else you’d recommend I speak to?


  • What was it like to work with this candidate?
  • Was this candidate a good communicator and listener
  • Would you work with this candidate again? 

Crafting Effective Reference Check Questions

As you adapt these basic questions to learn what it is you need to know about your particular candidate in question, consider these tips: 

  • Tailor questions. Consider the role you’re hiring for right now and how you might ask questions for that. For example, you can lean into leadership questions if you’re hiring a new manager. 
  • Standardize for the same position. It can be helpful to use the same set of questions for each candidate applying for the same role. That can help you compare responses and even the playing field for the applicants. 
  • Keep it open-ended. Yes and no questions yield minimal information. Try to keep your questions open-ended to get a broader picture of the candidate. Instead of saying, for example, “Did they hit their deadlines?” you can ask “How does this person handle deadlines when you worked together?” 
  • Stay neutral: On top of that, don’t add your views or frame questions to try and get specific answers. Instead, ask the question in a neutral way. For example, you might not want to ask, “Was the employee difficult to get along with?” That can lead the respondent to consider only that aspect of the candidate. Instead, you could ask, “What was it like to work with this individual?” 
  • Try to get to the heart of it. Ultimately, one goal of this process is to find someone who will add to your company culture and who will move your organization forward. Try to keep your questions focused on those forward-looking aims. 

Analyzing Reference Check Responses

After you’ve talked with the references, consider these tips as you move forward: 

  • Consider the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. You’ll often learn what someone does well — and where they struggle. If their weaknesses are specific to the for which they’re applying, that is cause for concern. It could make your hiring decision for you. For example, if their major weakness is communication and you’re hiring for leadership, that could be worrying. Don’t forget to look for their specific skills. Consider if their strengths will add to the job and the company. 
  • Watch for red flags. If their reference wouldn’t hire them again, that might be something to take seriously. Other red flags might be an inability to work with others — or something that would make them unable to perform in the position. For example, if you learned someone continually struggles to mentor their team members, they might not be a good fit for a leadership position. 
  • Listen for enthusiasm. Excitement about the candidate is a great sign that they’d be a good addition to the team. Enthusiasm is a great sign, whereas rote responses may indicate an underwhelming performance. Listening to a reference’s tone of voice can clue you into how they really feel about the candidate. 

How to Run an Effective Reference Check Process

When you’re ready to speak with references, there are some best practices for this stage of hiring: 

  • Request references. The first step is to ensure that you have contact information for any professional and personal references you want. Consider requesting that all candidates include the details you need on their initial application. You might also provide instructions on what kinds of references you’re looking for, so potential candidates can meet your expectations — that way you end up speaking to a former supervisor, not an old college roommate. 
  • Communicate with the candidates. Telling your candidates that you’re going to contact their references has a few benefits. First, it shows that you respect the candidates because you’re being transparent with them. Second, it gives these individuals a chance to talk to their references and give them a heads-up that you’ll be calling, reducing the chance they’ll ignore your call. (Most unknown numbers are spam these days, after all).
  • Contact the references. Using the information from the application, you can reach out to the individuals. You’ll most likely want a list of prepared questions, so you can get the insights you need to make a hiring decision. (Inspiration for that below!)
  • Take detailed notes. During the conversation, take good notes. That helps you remember what’s said, and it provides you with a record to refer to while making your final decision. Plus then you can compare what all of the references said more easily, helping you standardize your interview process.

Tips for Conducting a Great Reference Check

These are some best practice suggestions to help make the process smoother: 

  • Conduct reference checks by phone. Consider making a call or holding a video call. People are often more forthcoming in a phone conversation than over email, and it’s easier to ask follow-up questions, should you have them. Plus you can learn more about how a reference feels about your candidate by their tone of voice
  • Let the reference schedule the time. The reference is doing you a favor and giving you key insights for hiring. Show them that you understand this by letting them choose a time that’s convenient for them. 
  • Remain vigilant for fake references. In a Federation for Small Businesses survey of more than 1,000 companies, 17% reported that candidates had submitted fake references. It could happen to your company as well. If the contact information you have isn’t viable, you might have received a fake reference.
  • Make it quick. Again, the references are helping you, so try not to impose. About 15 to 20 minutes should be enough. 
  • Address confidentiality concerns. Reassure references that their responses won’t be shared. That can help them feel more comfortable talking with you and increase their levels of honesty. 

Creating a Workplace of Wellbeing

Reference check questions are a great way to make sure you’re hiring the best candidates. 

Another powerful way to pull in top talent is a focus on workforce wellness.  Potential employees are actively looking for organizations with wellness programs. A full 93% of workers consider their wellbeing at work to be equally important to their salary, according to Wellhub research

Ready to create a culture of wellbeing? Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist today! 

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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