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What Reference Check Questions Can Employers Ask?

Illustration of a clipboard and pen with a list of reference check questions.

Conducting a reference check can provide more detailed insight into a candidate’s work history, character, and qualifications than an employment verification does. What questions can you ask during a reference check?

This article shares common reference check questions so you can develop a compliant list that provides the answers you need to hire with confidence.


As part of the employment screening process, hiring managers or a third-party employment screening provider may perform a professional reference check. It’s during this process many hiring managers and candidates might ask: 

  • What are some typical reference check questions? 
  • What questions do employers ask references? 
  • What questions should I ask when doing a reference check?

Unlike Employment Verifications, reference check questions are much more expansive and provide more detailed insight into a candidate’s work history and qualifications. While equally important, Employment Verifications can only confirm details provided by the candidate, such as dates of employment (start and end) and job titles, to help ensure candidates aren’t dishonest on their resumes.

On the other hand, reference checks allow more specific questions about candidates’ work histories and further details like their job responsibilities, work ethic, and character. All of which are necessary details when determining who will be a good fit for the position and your company. 

So, what questions can potential employers ask references? GoodHire is breaking down the types of reference check questions that can be asked during the screening process.

Typical Reference Check Questions

As a hiring manager, you likely have a go-to list of typical questions you ask to better understand a candidate, the reference, and their working relationship. Knowing how closely the reference worked or works with the candidate can make a significant difference in the information they disclose and how you can apply that to hiring decisions. (Check out our reference check form to get an idea of what one could look like.)

For example, if a reference worked with the candidate every day, they’ll have better insight into who they are and how they perform in their job. But if a reference is more distanced from the candidate (i.e., not a direct report, of higher-level management, or on a different team), they may not have as much valuable insight.

With those scenarios in mind, hiring managers may ask questions including:

  • How do you know the candidate?
  • How did you work with the candidate?
  • How did the candidate’s employment end? 
  • What were the candidate’s job titles or roles? How long did they spend in each?
  • Did the candidate receive any promotions at this company?
  • Does the candidate possess the job skills required for this position?
  • Did the candidate have any notable or major accomplishments while working with you?
  • Would you rehire the applicant if you had the chance?
  • Would you recommend the candidate for employment with another company? Why or why not?

Work Ethic & Experience Reference Check Questions

Once you understand the working relationship between the candidate and reference, you’ll want to know about specific work skills, experience, responsibilities, and work ethic. Some of those questions may include:

  • What are the candidate’s daily duties and responsibilities?
  • What is a typical workday like for the candidate?
  • How would you rate the candidate’s written and oral communication skills?
  • How would you rate the candidate’s listening skills?
  • We need a candidate who has [these specific skills]. How would you rate the candidate on these?
  • What skills do you believe the candidate needs to improve upon?
  • Tell me about the candidate’s ability to communicate across teams.
  • What are the candidate’s greatest strengths they bring to your team/company?
  • What are some hurdles the candidate experienced or experiences?
  • What are the candidate’s primary areas or opportunities for growth?
  • How does the candidate manage their time?
  • Tell me about the candidate’s ability to prioritize tasks.
  • How would you rate the candidate’s overall job performance?
  • Is there anything else that you would like to add about the candidate we did not cover?
  • Is there another co-worker or peer I should speak with?

Of course, you can expand or ask more questions to get a better sense of the candidate’s skills and how they apply to the job they’re seeking. For example, if a candidate applies for a management or leadership role, you will likely want to ask specific questions, including: 

  • How many people did the candidate manage?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s leadership style?
  • Did the candidate ever experience any conflicts with their employees?

Character Reference Check Questions

While having the relevant work skills and experience is crucial to any role, you also want to feel confident you’re hiring a candidate who is enjoyable to work with and will make a positive contribution to your team and company. In other words: What is their personality like? What is their character like? Do their ethics and values align with the company? How do they perform when they’re faced with adversity? 

Reference check questions that directly relate to a candidate’s character are certainly not off-limits for employers, and could give signs of what constitutes a bad or good reference check for candidates. If anything, they’re the most telling when it comes to deciding whether to move forward with a candidate or pass on them altogether. Some character-related reference check questions may include:

  • What was your experience working with this candidate?
  • How would you rate the candidate when it comes to reliability? Dependability? Honesty? Trustworthiness?
  • Tell me about the candidate’s working relationships with peers and co-workers.
  • How does the candidate handle stressful or challenging situations? 
  • What do you think the candidate’s strongest attributes are?
  • How would you rate the candidate in terms of being a team player?
  • How would you rate the candidate’s ability to remain adaptable?
  • What type of work environment does the candidate perform best in?
  • Overall, would you recommend this candidate for the position?

Ask The Best Reference Check Questions With GoodHire

Knowing which questions to ask during reference checks can sometimes be overwhelming. You want to ensure you’re asking the right questions—and in the right way—to arm yourself with the information you need to make strategic hiring decisions. 

Additionally, you want to remain compliant during in-depth reference checks, steering clear of questions that are off-limits, and follow all the pre-adverse action and adverse action steps as outlined by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) if you decide not to hire.

To get the best of both worlds, turn to GoodHire to perform Reference Check Services. We take the time to ask in-depth, open-ended questions by phone with the candidate’s reference to give you the answers and information you need to make an informed hiring decision. 

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Disclaimer

The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.


About the Author

Ashley Blonquist writes about GoodHire’s employment screening services and how employers can use them to make informed hiring decisions. She is a former news journalist turned digital marketing strategist and freelance copywriter. She specializes in blog and article writing, website strategy and content, emails, and social media posts  covering a wide variety of topics and interests.