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Ask more insightful reference questions


You do all the reference checks in the world, but if your reference questions aren’t in-depth and insightful, the information you receive will not be worth the time you spent getting it.

The right reference questions provide you with a wealth of information you may never have had access to. You need to ask reference questions that factor in both industry standards and technical specifications that the position may entail. Start with straightforward introductory reference questions before asking more open-ended substantial reference questions.

This doesn’t mean that reference letters don’t have their place, but talking directly to references are always preferred.

Below is just a small sample of reference questions that can cover a broad range of situations. You can add in any that will give you a clearer understanding of a candidate’s abilities and performance.


Introductory reference questions

1. When did they work at your company and what was their position?

This is verification on position and employment dates. It is one of those nice easy reference questions that get a conversation started.

2. In what capacity did you know or work with them? How long did you work together?

You need to know who you are talking to and if they were a manager or colleague. The structure of your conversation will vary depending on their working relationship and will provide different information depending on the position held. The length of time they worked together will also make a difference in the level of insight they will be able to give you.



Skill assessment reference questions

1. What was their main responsibilities and duties in their role?

The duties that will be described to you will be the ones that come to mind straight away. They will be the ones they are generally most aware of and will be able to provide more details on. You may have to probe further to gain insight into specific duties.

2. What are their greatest strengths? What skills do you think they can develop further?

You want to know where someone excels. You will be comparing the strengths perceived while interviewing with what their references say. You want to have them explain situations where these strengths came into play. Your goal here is to get a full picture of the candidate’s ability, and what they will truly bring to the table if hired.

3. What about the areas they could improve in the most? If they have any weaknesses in this role, do you think they could overcome them within the first 90 days?

This is not one of the knock out reference questions you think it is. Weaknesses are easier to overcome when you know about them in advance and can base your training around them. You are finding out if someone can work through those weaknesses, and if they are ‘skills’ based or behavioural. Weaknesses aren’t always a disqualifier. Occasionally, a perceived weakness may even be a strength for your open role.

4. Did they receive any promotions while at your company? If not, do you think they could take on a more senior position? Why or why not?

Reference questions around promotion establish the environment they used to work in, and specific areas that need to be worked on for them to move into more senior roles. The crux of this is around the person’s ability to keep growing and learning. If that is crucial for your role, you want to investigate this more. Remember that not every position allows for growth, and not every person wants to climb the corporate ladder.

5. Tell me about their most significant accomplishment while working with you?

This could be project-based, systems-based, or even based around their ability to work with someone considered extremely difficult by everyone else. Be open to the answer you will receive as every reference will view accomplishments differently.

6. Did they hit or exceed any quotas/KPI’s?

If you are hiring for sales or target-based roles, don’t accept a simple yes, get all the details. Find those areas where they shine. Ask for metrics and figures. Check what the company considers their normal range and see where your candidate performed against that. You want to see what kind of numbers they are used to working with. If your demands are going to be a lot higher, ask if the reference feels they will be able to handle the extra load, or how long they think it will take them to get up to speed.

7. Let me tell you a bit about the role we are considering them for. Do you think they would be a fit?

Briefly give an overview of the role you are hiring for. Highlight the mandatory needs you will have in this role. Even though this role may be different from the position they had before, you’re giving the reference a chance to expand on what they have already told you.

Book and light bulb of business concept


Reference questions to assess cultural fit

1. Was there ever an occasion they received negative feedback? How did they respond?

Negative feedback will happen sooner or later – not one of us is as special as we would like to think we are. You want to be aware of how your candidate will handle it when it happens. You will be better prepared to have those conversations when they need to happen.

2. How did they handle stressful situations? Please give examples.

Stress is bound to occur when you mix different people in the same environment and add in things like tight deadlines. Often people react quite positively with just a little encouragement and support. Occasionally people fall apart. If your company is high stress all the time, you should make sure a potential hire is coming into an environment that is a match for their temperament. It’s important to know if they can handle stress effectively.

3. Did they supervise or manage anyone else? If so, how do you think someone on their team would describe their management style? How did they manage conflict amongst team members?

In an interview environment, it is often possible to spot a candidate you can see being in a management position down the line. You want to know how they have treated and coached team members in the past. By asking how their team would describe them, you are looking for an honest appraisal of their abilities based on the feedback the reference received about them – not on how they saw the candidate.

4. Did they work better independently or in a group? Tell me about how they performed in a team environment? Did they support their co-workers?

If they work better independently, ask further reference questions around self-sufficiency. Find out how the candidate will interact and work with co-workers; if they took the lead or followed; how they supported the rest of the team.  Everybody will have to work in a group at some point; ensuring that your candidate can do so is essential.

5. Do they have good communication and listening skills?

A quick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is not acceptable here. Ask about the specifics. Get examples.

6. Where their any mitigating factors that you felt impacted their job performance?

This is a chance for them to talk about issues around punctuality, missing deadlines, or even an inability to cooperate with co-workers.



Conclusion reference questions

1. Why did they leave this role?

They will probably have told you why; this is your check to make sure the answers match. You also want to find out if they left on good terms.

2. Is there anything else I should know about them?

This gives your reference a chance to touch on further details. Or for them to provide you with some more insight into an area of their skills you may not have asked about.

3. Why should I hire them over any other candidates that have applied?

A good reference that believes in the person they are providing a reference for will jump at the chance to gush about how outstanding a candidate is. Getting a lukewarm response (that doesn’t match their tone throughout the call) should make you pause and maybe investigate further.

4. Company policies aside, would you rehire them if you had a chance?

Ask this reference question last. This should receive a solid yes. If the answer is no, find out why. There could be very legitimate reasons, such as the business has moved in a different direction, or the position not being there anymore – but you need to know why. If you only have a chance to ask one question in your reference checks, this is the one!



Always remember

Not all reference questions are not created equal.  Keep them insightful, while allowing your reference check to still be a conversation – never an interrogation. The information you receive from reference questions provide the base of future training, who they may work best with, and most importantly, how you can help them succeed. Do a good job on your reference questions, and your future employee will do a great job for you.

The recruitment team at Energy Resourcing knows this, which is why we take such care when doing reference checks. The information we gather during reference checks helps our clients make informed hiring decisions, so we make sure to get as many details as we possibly can.  We love what we do, and would love to help with your next hire.

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