The Beginner’s Guide to Reference Check Questions

By | November 9, 2021

Reference check questions, as mundane as they seem, can ultimately help you avoid a terrible contract or bad hire. Taking the time to ask the right questions is a key step toward a better hiring outcome.

Yet, despite the importance of these questions, it is sometimes hard to know what to ask. The right questions always depend on context and experience.

In this guide, I’ll walk you through the basics of good reference questions, the tools you can use to improve your reference checks, and ways to ask better questions no matter who you’re talking to.

Read on and up your reference check questions game.

What Are Reference Check Questions?

Put simply, once a job-seeking candidate hands you a list of professional or personal contacts, you can reach out to those people to ask questions that’ll give you less biased information about that candidate. The better reference questions you ask, the better insight you’re able to gather about your job candidate. This way, you’re able to make the right choice when you’re trying to decide who is the best fit for the job.

The Basics of Reference Check Questions

Once you break down reference questions into a few key components, you’ll be able to run a successful reference check for any potential hire. Here are some considerations to note as you prepare to run reference checks:

Clear Consent

Before you pick up the phone and start contacting anyone, it’s good practice to ensure your potential hire knows you are reaching out to their references.

You can do this in a variety of ways. You can contact the candidate directly by phone or email to let them know you’ll be reaching out to their references within the next few days. Or you can include a spot in your job application asking for explicit permission to contact all references a job seeker provides.

Making sure you have explicit consent to run a reference check on the candidate ensures you’re both on the same page and clearly communicating throughout the hiring process. Getting clear consent first helps you avoid any possible misunderstandings. This leads us to confidentiality, an important part of the reference check process.


One of the best ways to get the most out of your references is to let them know that any information they share with you is strictly confidential—meaning you don’t plan on sharing their answers with anyone.

This puts the person at ease and allows them to share more candid details that are less biased. This, in turn, gives you a clearer picture of what it would be like to hire and work with the candidate you’re considering.

If this is your first time running a formal reference check, it can seem overwhelming at first. But you can make the process easier on yourself by first doing your due diligence and preparing beforehand.

Due Diligence and Preparation

Doing a little prep work before any reference check, even if it’s just a few minutes of gathering notes and jotting down key questions, can mark the difference between a successful reference check and a useless one.

Doing your due diligence and preparing well before running a series of reference checks for a list of job candidates can be tedious, depending on your industry. While some reference checks are more straightforward, others take a little more work, especially if you’re trying to fill a high-level position with a lot on the line that requires a specific set of skills you need to verify beforehand.

Here’s where reference check software can come into play as a total game-changer for your reference check process. Below, we dive deeper into a few options you can try on for size to make the reference check process a breeze.

5 Tools to Improve Your Reference Check Questions

When it comes to making the hiring process more straightforward, reference check software can help you get the job done. Here’s a look at some of the best software you can use.

SkillSurvey Reference

Say you’re thinking about hiring a candidate that so far seems like a great fit, but you still need to follow through and check their references. With SkillSurvey Reference, you get access to reference questions that have been proven to predict hiring success. If you don’t want to create your own reference questions from scratch, SkillSurvey Reference provides a massive list to choose from to design a set of reference questions appropriate for your industry.

In a nutshell, SkillSurvey Reference combines data and reference questions designed by people with experience in the field to provide you with a faster and more accurate reference check process. Though SkillSurvey Reference doesn’t publicly list prices, you can request a live demo to learn more.


Vitay combines ease and automation to provide HR leaders and recruiters with a framework for a better reference check process to increase your employee retention rate. Once you request a set of references from your job candidate through Vitay, it automatically reaches out to each contact with a set of questions you design.

The process of sending an email to references with a quick reference check questionnaire they can quickly fill out and send back can cut the time you spend collecting insight on your job candidates in half. Its prices start at $299 a month. Check out Vitay here.


HiPeople is designed to help you collect candidate reference check information at scale. Through the HiPeople dashboard, you start by choosing what you need to learn about the candidate.

From there, once you feed it the reference information you have on hand, HiPeople goes to work to gather the reference information you need to make smarter hiring decisions. Though HiPeople doesn’t outright list its prices, you can request a demo to learn more here.


Checkmate brings together the reference checking and screening process for a smoother pre-screening workflow. In a nutshell, it’s designed to cut reference check admin time in half while helping you get the most out of your screening and reference process.

Once you choose the questionnaire to send your candidate, Checkmate does the rest while you wait for a response. The information your candidate provides is used by Checkmate to send personalized reference checks to the contacts provided.

With less time than it would take you to run a reference check manually, you’ll be able to see your job candidate with a new lens. Checkmate does all of this at a cost-effective price, with prices starting at $17 per check. You can go here to learn more and sign up.


Xref also uses automation to help you run a reference check to help speed up the process. It’s designed to help you collect references to send your questions and get them back within an average of 24 hours. If something goes wrong through the reference check or Xref gets their hands on unusual reference check information, its data-driven algorithm gives you a heads up, so you’re making informed hiring decisions.

Xref works on a bespoke pricing model. You’ll have to get in contact with them here to learn more about how much it’ll cost you to use it.

3 Tricks for Asking Better Reference Check Questions

We’ve gone over what reference questions are, their key components, and what tools you can use to make the process easier. Here are three additional pointers to help you run better, more effective reference checks.

Ask Open-Ended Questions When Possible

Without a doubt, open-ended questions help you get the most value out of your references because they encourage the person to provide more in-depth and thorough answers about the candidate.

A closed (yes-or-no) question is: “Was (candidate) a good worker?” A more open-ended question would be: “How would you describe (candidate)’s day-to-day job performance?”

Any open-ended question will give you a better picture of what employing the candidate will likely be like. Here is a brief list of common open-ended questions you can ask or use to inspire your own set of questions:

  • Could you describe your relationship with (candidate)? In what capacity did you work with them?
  • What were (candidate)’s most significant accomplishments during their time with you?
  • Could you tell me a bit about where (candidate) fell short in terms of job responsibilities or skills?
  • Would you be able to share information about why (candidate) left your company?
  • If you had to name two to three of (candidate)’s biggest strengths, what would you say they are?
  • Could you describe (candidate)’s relationship with their co-workers?
  • What would you say are some areas of improvement for (candidate)?
  • What dates did (candidate) work at your company?
  • What, if any, unusual or disruptive behavior did (candidate) display during their employment with you?

You can use this list to get started creating a reference process to make the best hiring decision. While you don’t have to ask every single question that comes to mind, it’s essential to know which are the most important ones to garner you the best information.

Be Aware of What You Can Legally Ask

It’s illegal to ask your references about a candidate’s personal information. This includes any questions about religious background, age, parental or marital status, disabilities, gender identity, or nationality. In other words, you should never ask a reference any questions that have anything to do with protected class information.

Need a few examples? Here’s a short list of questions to never ask during your reference check process:

  • Does (candidate) have children/did they ever need to use parental leave days?
  • Was (candidate) ever absent from work due to religious reasons?
  • Did (candidate)’s age ever get in the way of successfully performing their job duties?

Though these questions might sound fairly innocuous at first glance, they’re actually in violation of the protected status laws that are put in place so that job candidates don’t get discriminated against during any part of the hiring process. As you create your reference questions, it’s important to steer clear of any questions that might violate hiring laws. You can learn more about it here.

Take Detailed Notes

When listening to answers from references, it’s easy to think you’ll remember it all once you need to refer back to it. But it’s easier to forget than you might think—especially if you’re running several reference checks at a time.

You should take detailed notes during the conversation. That way, you’ll be able to refer back to accurate information not tarnished by a faulty memory. Notes also make it easier to share your findings with any stakeholders involved in the hiring process.

What to Do Next

If you’ve gotten this far, you know how to ask effective reference questions, what to watch out for, and the tools you can use to make the entire process easier. From here, there are a couple of things you can do to reinforce your reference check process.

If you’re looking for tools to streamline your recruiting process, this guide walks you through how to choose one that’ll work for you. For an in-depth review of the best HR tools, check out the QuickSprout guide to HR software. Need to reference this guide later? Make sure to bookmark it.

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