The Best Questions to Ask When Checking References

Guides & Reports Emelie Dahl


Reference checking is used in most recruitment processes, but not always with a clear understanding of why or how. We have taken a deep dive into the research on reference checking and how you can utilise scientific findings to optimise the process. This article will give you tips on what questions to ask to get the most relevant and reliable information about your candidates!

A high-quality reference check will help you...

  • Clarify ambiguities from the interview
  • Verify the information about the candidate’s background regarding previous employment and education
  • Gain additional information about the candidate's personality and character
  • Obtain a third-party perspective on the candidate's work performance, capacity and potential
  • Explore the reference's willingness to work with the candidate again
  • Create valuable onboarding material for the hiring manager

Based on this, there are a number of questions that tend to be relevant to ask during the reference checking. Here is a battery of questions you can pick from based on the requirements for the role you are filling. Remember to keep down the total number of questions in the reference checking and to use scale and multiple-choice questions whenever possible.

Questions to Ask in Reference Checking

Questions to Verify the Candidate's Background:

  • What is your relationship with the candidate?
  • When did you have a professional relationship with the candidate?
  • For how long did your professional relationship last?
  • What duties and responsibilities does/did the candidate have?
Questions to Obtain Information About the Candidate's Characteristics

Reference checking questions that are used to obtain information about the candidate's characteristics should always be based on a job analysis. If the questions are not based on a job analysis, there is a risk that the information you collect about the candidate will be irrelevant. In other words, the reference checking questions will vary depending on the type of position you are filling.

Research shows that the best type of questions to use in reference checking to gather information about the candidate's characteristics are work-related behavioural questions. Here are some examples where the questions are formulated as statements that the references can assess using numeric scales:

  • The candidate works quickly and efficiently
  • The candidate accomplishes the work on time
  • The result of the candidate's work is of a high standard
  • The candidate behaves respectfully towards others
  • The candidate sets high goals
  • The candidate achieves the goals

Reference answers Refapp insights form

Want more examples of questions to ask about the candidate's characteristics? Refapp has a solid library of questionnaires for various professional roles. Contact us for more information!

Questions to Obtain Information About the Candidate's Competencies

Refapp collaborates with several competency frameworks. By using the same competency framework in your reference checking as in your other personnel selection methods, you get consistency throughout the entire recruitment process. Here you can see which competency frameworks are currently available in Refapp.

Questions About Counterproductive Work Behaviour

Counterproductive work behaviour is intentional employee behaviour that violates organisational norms, which could harm the well-being of the organisation, its employees and customers. Reference checking can be an invaluable source of information about candidates' counterproductive behaviours because reference checking is usually the only personnel selection method where the information about the candidates comes from someone other than the candidates themselves. Here are some questions about counterproductive work behaviour:

  • Is there anything to remark regarding misbehaviour or other irregularities?
  • Has the candidate ever been absent from work without valid reasons?
  • Has the candidate refused to follow instructions or directives from supervisors?

Questions About the Reference's Willingness to Work With the Candidate Again and Assessment of Performance

  • If you had the opportunity, would you hire or recommend hiring the candidate again?
  • How would you rate the candidate's performance in relation to others who did similar work?

Questions to Obtain Information That Can Be Used for Onboarding

If you use the reference check to collect information that can be used for onboarding, you must decide how that information should be used before you start the reference checking procedure. For example, the information you collect through the onboarding questions should not affect your hiring decision. Instead, the information from these questions should only be used after you have decided to hire the candidate.

  • What recommendations would you give to the candidate’s new manager?
  • What kind of leadership does the candidate need?
  • Do you know why the candidate left the previous position/why the candidate is looking for a new job?

Some Other Things to Keep in Mind When Formulating Your Reference Checking Questions

  • Use scale and multiple-choice questions as much as possible. Research shows that mechanical interpretation of candidate data has higher validity than subjective/intuitive interpretation. 

    Research also shows that when references describe candidates in free text, there tends to be a gender bias that disadvantages female candidates. This gender bias can be minimised if the references instead rate the candidates using numerical scales.

  • Collect data from as many references as possible. The more references you collect data from, the more reliable your reference checking will be. We recommend that you use at least three references per candidate.

We hope you find this article useful and wish you good luck with your reference checking! Do you have questions about digital reference checking with Refapp? Contact us and we will be happy to tell you more!