Best 20 questions to ask for references in 2021

Best questions to ask references: Complete guide


In recruitment processes, it is easy to get impressed with an accomplished application and resume. But it is always best to cross-check the capabilities and confirm the facts on the resume of the candidate. This not only provides you with relevant information about the candidate’s previous roles but also reveals any possible conflicts. In this article, we are going to discuss th best questions to ask for references over here.

There is an appropriate way to check references and some best-proven questions to ask in order to gain efficient results. In this article, I will provide you with a complete guide to check references. Keep scrolling!

When reference checks are done correctly, they can prove to be extremely helpful. Sometimes, a resume or an application doesn’t appropriately suggest the candidate’s entire background. Rash recruitment can be costly. Even when you are extremely impressed by a candidate, don’t hesitate to call for a reference because any information you gain might be helpful. 

Why questions to ask for references?

A reference check should be an important step in the hiring process. Avoiding calling any references because of personal bias, might later possibly be detrimental to your company’s future.

Along with background checks, social media checks, and job interviews, reference checks are helpful in finding the perfect fit for your company. Reference checks are a great way to find about the candidate through a third-person point of view. Checking with the candidate’s former manager, boss, co-workers or supervisor will provide you with the candidate’s personal traits like punctuality, dedication, agreeableness, etc. 

Reference checks also help in verifying the facts claimed by the candidate in their application or resume. You can ask the reference for their job performance as well as their ability to get along with their colleagues. 

Experts claim that you cant reply on your hunch. Even if there is a small percentage of doubt you have in your mind, you shouldn’t overlook them. A candidate will always sell themselves in order to get selected for the job and focus on their positives. Hence, job applications are not the most reliable source to understand a candidate. External references can always provide a better insight into the candidate’s strengths and limitations. Sometimes, even when a recruiter is extremely impressed by a candidate, a reference check can completely change their opinion, since it’s through the experience of another professional. 

As a recruiter, you should make sure that the candidate provides you with a list of references which you can contact. Ask them to include the names and contact numbers or emails of their previous or current managers or boss. The way the candidate responds to this can indirectly speak about their relationship with their employers.

An important thing to remember is that sometimes, a candidate can provide the numbers of their friends or family members as references. In this case, the review would obviously be glowing positive. As a recruiter, make sure that you don’t get fooled this way and are only talking to a professional.

What is the correct way to contact references?

Asking for references is useful only when it’s done the right way. If done hastily with little preparation, it can be unproductive and pointless. You should follow certain steps to make sure this is done efficiently and effectively. 

  1. The first step would be to inform and take the candidate’s consent to contact a reference. It is possible that the candidate’s current manager might be kept in the dark of their ongoing job hunt. Hence, it is best to ask them if they are okay with you getting in touch with a certain professional.
  1. Next, you should take feedback from everyone from your company involved in the interview process. In case, anyone has concerns about the candidate, it can be cleared up in the reference check. Ask them if they have any follow-up questions or if they want to know more about a particular subject. 
  1. After calling a certain reference, provide some context first and foremost. Tell them what you are calling regarding and what information you wish to gain. This will help them get comfortable and you won’t catch them off-guard.
  1. Set a professional tone to the call. Be sure to point out that you wish to have a productive call and are open to constructive criticism about the candidate. Remember to inform them that they have a right to confidentiality and whatever they say would be between you and them. 
  1. Explain the references, about the job position and the responsibilities that come along with it. Ask them if they had taken a similar role previously and how well they performed. In case, they haven’t taken a similar role, ask them what skills does the candidate possesses that would be helpful in this role.   
  2. Ask really specific questions to gain relevant information. Avoid asking general questions like “Tell me about [name]” as they would be inclined to focus on the positives only. Frame your questions so that you get the information that you need. It is also a great practice to prepare some questions beforehand, after consulting the recruiting team.
  1. Focus on the facts provided by the person on the other side instead of their tone or attitude. You can’t judge a person based on a brief phone conversation. Don’t try to decipher intangible details. Note down any possible concerns they might mention or any good achievements that were overlooked earlier. This is your chance to gain relevant, descriptive, and reliable information. Make the best use of it.
  1. Frame your questions in a way to find if the candidate is a fit for your organization. Ask the reference about the candidate’s soft skills. This is a very underrated detail that provides the best information about a person’s personality. The candidate should be able to thrive in your company’s work environment and work culture. 
  1. A reference check works best when you contact the right person for the right information. Thus, don’t stick to just managers or bosses for references. If you wish to know about the candidate’s ability to follow instructions and meet deadlines, it is best to contact their previous managers. If you wish to know their ability to cooperate and work well with their peers, contact a colleague. If you want to make a background check, contact their HR managers and so on. This helps in getting reliable information from a valid source. 
  1. Ask for examples from the reference. Explain the role that the candidate will be expected to perform. Further, ask references to give examples where the candidate has successfully completed this role. This will help you find specific information and allow you to read in between the lines. 

Best questions to ask references:

For the sake of easy communication, let us assume that a specific candidate’s name is Kevin. We will use this name while framing the questions. 

Following are some questions you should ask your references, the purpose behind asking them, and the correct time and way to ask them.

  1. What are your company’s guidelines on disclosing information about a former employee and how much information can you provide me with?

Different companies have different policies regarding employee confidentiality. Thus, it is best to ask the reference if they can provide you with information regarding this candidate. This is a great question to start with since it sets a tone for the interview and you understand right from the start about what you can and cannot ask.

  1. Can you verify Kevin’s employment status while working in your company i.e. the position, salary, employment duration, etc?

This is the best way to verify the candidate’s claims on their resume and interview. It also lets you know how the reference describes them and their position. If there is a difference between the candidate and the reference’s responses, then it can be a red flag and you should not let it slide.

  1. What responsibilities did Kevin undertake while working with you and how efficiently did they perform?

This provides information about the candidate’s work performance and their ability to perform efficiently in their roles. If their responsibilities in their earlier jobs would match with the job you are considering them for, then this would be excellent for you.

  1. What are Kevin’s strengths and weaknesses according to you?

This is a classic question that is used by recruiters all the time to know a candidate’s personality. Even though you have already asked this question to the candidate previously, don’t hesitate to ask the reference the same. This will give you two perspectives to understand the candidate better. It also helps to find out how self-aware your candidate is and if they are giving honest answers.

  1. We are considering Kevin for [______] role, how do you think they will perform in this and how will you rate their [_____] ability?

A great question that describes the candidate’s future role and responsibilities. This enables you to get specific information about the candidate’s ability to perform in a certain role and how efficiently they can do so. Be as specific as you can be while explaining the reference about the role. This will help get in-depth and valid information.

  1. What would you consider Kevin’s biggest professional achievement when they were working with you?

A great question to know the candidate’s achievements or accomplishments. It enables the recruiter to get a review of the candidate’s achievements from a superior’s point of view. This helps you to find out the skills your candidate will bring to the table and how they would be compatible with the responsibilities they would take. 

  1. Is Kevin a better team player or works best alone?

Team-work is essential but individuality matters as well. Knowing about this question will help you to understand how this candidate will fit into your organization. If your company emphasizes more on teamwork then someone who works best alone would not be a good fit and vice versa. 

  1. Can you tell me about any incident where Kevin took extra effort to overcome his weakness so it doesn’t affect his work? If you can’t mention any, do you think Kevin is the kind of person to take that step?

A perfect question to know your candidate’s dedication towards their job and their ability to grow. Any step taken, big or small, to overcome one’s mistake shows commitment and humility. This could be a great asset in a person and they would be a great hire for any company. 

  1. What position did Kevin start from at your company and how did they climb their way up?

This confirms the candidate’s claims about their former job position and promotions. It also tells you about their professional journey from the third point of view.

  1. Did Kevin take leadership roles easily? 

If the role you are considering the candidate for, requires leadership skills, then this is an essential question to ask your reference. Leadership is a role that comes easily to some people while it requires extra effort for someone else. 

  1. Why did Kevin leave your company?

Chances are that you have already asked this question to your candidate. Asking this again to the reference will verify the candidate’s claims. It could also reveal any past conflicts that the candidate would have tried to hide from you during the interview. 

  1. How was Kevin as a colleague? Were they easy to work beside?

A great question to ask peers as references. Knowing the candidate’s behavior with peers and colleagues speaks of them as a person. It will give you knowledge about the candidate’s ability to get along with peers and concern for social harmony. This shows if they work well on team projects or are a good asset in teams. 

  1. What advice would you give someone managing Kevin?

If your conversation has been fruitful so far, then this would be a good question to ask to get guidance to maximize a candidate’s potential. Someone who has earlier supervised a candidate can give the appropriate answer for this question. 

  1. Was there any workplace conflict Kevin was involved with that we should be concerned about?

This is a tricky and serious question. It is something you can ask previous HR managers. Depending on the nature of the conflict and the company’s policies, you may or may not get a satisfying answer to this question. But it is still worth asking.

  1. What kind of work environment best suits Kevin’s abilities?

A great question to know if your candidate can thrive in your company’s work environment. Work environments must be compatible with an individual’s personality to get maximum results.

  1. What would you say about Kevin’s abilities to meet deadlines? Can you think of any relevant examples?

If your company’s work environment is fast-paced, then this is a good question to ask. This will provide you with specific information and also relevant examples. 

  1. How did you grow professionally under Kevin’s supervision?

This is a good question to ask the candidate’s subordinates. This will help you to find out about their ability to influence and motivate their workers. If you are considering someone for a role where they will have to manage or supervise a group, then definitely ask this question.

  1. Is there anything else that would be useful to know about Kevin?

Ask this question while wrapping up your call. When you have exhausted your questions, you can ask this to know additional information. Usually, this will have positive responses or even information that you might find surprising.

  1. Would you rehire Kevin if the situation arises?

A great question to end on. You will also find the reference’s personal opinion and bias towards the candidate. You should typically look for responses like “definitely” and so on. If the reference shows hesitance to answer this question, ask a follow-up question since their resistance could be a potential red flag.

  1. Is there anybody else I should speak to, in order to know more about Kevin?

This is a question to use when you haven’t yet made up your mind about the candidate. The reference will guide you to different people like co-workers, supervisors, etc. to get more information to satisfy your search. 

Things to remember:

There are some guidelines and protocols to follow while doing reference checks. You must keep company policies and ethics in mind while trying to gain information.

  1. An important thing to note is that questions related to the candidate’s personal life are not only unadvisable but also illegal to ask. Questions related to the candidate’s age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, race, etc. are completely out of bounds. They are not a factor that affects their job performance.
  1. Your questions should strictly be related to professional and work experiences. Any question that deviates from this theme is unproductive and problematic. You have to keep the conversation professional and related to business affairs. 
  1. As mentioned above, any question you ask should be concerned with their job performance. Asking questions like “What does Kevin do outside of work?” is not acceptable since it is not your business. Unless it organically comes up in conversation and your instinct tells you that it might affect their work, then ask follow-up questions. But the best practice would be to stay away from such topics completely. 


To summarise, you must follow protocols and policies while making reference checks, Make sure both the parties- the candidate and the reference, are aware of what you would be talking about. Record everything at every stage to avoid any miscommunication. I have given a list of general questions to ask references. Feel free to improvise them to best fit your search. Reference checks are a great way to know about a client from a professional’s perspective. So, the next time you are hiring an employee, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call some references! 

Best 20 questions to ask for references in 2021

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