How to Ask Better Reference Check Questions

If your reference check process isn’t giving you meaningful insights that help you make great hiring decisions, it should.

To draw better insights from your reference checks, you need better feedback, and to get better feedback, you need to ask better questions.

Great reference questions are customized to the role and its responsibilities. With specific answers in mind, they are crafted to be direct and to the point. Not only do better questions get you better data, they also save time for the person giving the reference, increasing engagement as well as improving the quality of reference responses.

Before we cover how to ask your candidate for a reference during their job search and how to get reference feedback in a more effective way, let’s review changes you can make to improve the reference check questions you’re asking.

Asking Better Reference Check Questions

What’s the difference between a good reference check question and a better reference check question?

A good reference check question confirms facts about whether and when a candidate worked for a company, but a better reference check question reveals new information in addition to simply verifying data you already have.

This is an important distinction.


How many times have you asked a professional reference, “Did you enjoy working with {Candidate}?” and received back the short response of, “Yes.” Many references will hesitate to give more detail either because they do not feel strongly about the candidate or they’re uncomfortable when put on the spot. At the end of the call you realize you did not collect much useful information about their work experience, and were only able to confirm dates of employment and the candidate’s title.

In contrast, the right reference check questions will get potential employers to the heart of a candidate’s competency, their level of self motivation and productivity, as well as previous team dynamics and overall culture fit. These will be the most important inputs for making a great hire who connects with their team and works productively for your company.

Here’s how to ask better reference questions for skill and fit.

Asking Better Reference Check Questions for Skill

The job you’re hiring for has specific demands, and the candidate’s ability to meet these demands should be the focus of the first questions you ask a candidate’s references.

Start with an outline of the necessary skills required to be successful in the role for which you are hiring. You want to make it easy for references to give you valuable insights into the candidate’s skills so that you may make a fair comparison. Use the job responsibilities list to inform your skill-related questions for references.

Here are some questions to ask yourself and the hiring manager to help you build a final list of what questions to ask references.

Job Required Skills

  • What are the primary tools and skill sets that candidates will need to use in order to meet the demands of the job?
  • What are attitudes and aptitudes that separate workable candidates from top-tier candidates for this role?
  • Are there any soft skills that are essential for this role, such as public speaking, attention to detail or creativity?
  • How are the responsibilities of this role different from the same job at another company in your industry?
  • What specialized projects and deliverables will the hire be responsible for and how do these specialized deliverables align with their primary job responsibilities?
  • What traits have correlated with higher and lower levels of performance in this role for other hires you have made?
  • What are examples of deliverables and/or accomplishments that prove a candidate is capable of completing the deliverables required by the job?

Once you have outlined the above information, you can easily turn your answers into a question or a series of questions for potential references.

Here’s an example of how to turn your answers into better reference check questions for evaluating candidate skills:

Example Question:

“What are the primary tools and skill sets that candidates will use to meet the demands of this sales role?

Your Example Answer:

The baseline requirements for sales candidates are: experience creating outbound leads in a CRM through independent research, managing a high volume of inbound leads and finding opportunities to upsell ongoing customers. Preferred candidates will have proven success selling accounting software solutions to small and midsized businesses.

The new hire will work in a sales team with 12 other salespeople that manages a high volume of inbound sales leads, researches outgoing leads and collaborates with the sales manager to close sales. The hire will also be responsible for tracking all of their sales activities in their dedicated CRM channel.

Example Reference Check Questions to Check for Skill

  • Is the candidate effective at working in a small sales team?
  • Are they more effective when working in a team or on their own?
  • How effective is (Candidate) at conducting outbound lead research?
  • What are the most high-profile sales that (Candidate) has made from outbound leads that they discovered?
  • How experienced and effective is (Candidate) at selling accounting software solutions?
  • How did (Candidate) find ways to upsell ongoing customers without being pushy or annoying these customers?
  • How effective is (Candidate) at collaborating with a sales manager to close sales?

Building your own set of skill questions can seem daunting. And for good reason. It’s difficult to gather unbiased, consistent feedback when asking open ended questions such as above.

This is where Harver’s reference checking automation can help. Harver Reference provides reference check templates for over 300 different job roles and titles. These templates contain customized questions specific to the experience and skills needed in each role.

All questions were validated by independent I/O psychologists and have been found to be accurate predictors of performance and turnover. Harver Reference clients are able to utilize these templates, and further customize as they see fit.

Once the reference checks are completed, Harver Reference’s reports provide overall average reference scores for each required skill. These easy-to-read graph reports make it a breeze to consistently check candidates’ skills against the requirements of the open job.

Find out more about how digital reference checking works.

Asking Better Reference Check Questions for Company and Team Fit

In addition to reference feedback that proves competency, the most valuable data a reference check can give concerns a candidate’s fit factors for their potential team and your company.

It turns out, 89% of bad hires are due to attitude and culture misfit. These hiring missteps could be avoided by gathering the right information at the time of hire.

Besides being qualified for the position, your hire needs to get along with their team members and fit into the work environment in order to be a success. Gathering fit feedback will help you choose the best hires who are a good fit for their job, their team and your company.

To ask better reference check questions for fit, think about your company’s culture and the culture of the department/team for which you’re hiring.

This will help you define what to ask when checking references to gather more detail about a candidate’s potential fit with the team and company.

Company Culture Fit

  • How is your company’s culture similar to/different from other firms in your industry and your direct competitors?
  • What are the top 5 company cultural traits that are important for your company’s identity and the work that is done every day at your company?
  • What are common traits shared by employees who are top performers and who experience a good overall fit with the company’s culture?
  • What are some of the social/charitable causes that your company champions and how high is engagement with these causes among your employees?

Team Fit

  • What are the defining culture traits of the department and team that the new hire will join?
  • Who will the new hire report to and who will report to the new hire?
  • Who will the new hire work most closely with and what roles do these people hold?
  • Are there any prevailing personality types or workplace attitudes on the teams the hire will be joining?
    • Are these prevailing personality types and attitudes right for the team, or will the new hire be chosen to bring the right personality and attitude to this team?
  • Who have been the most successful hires made for the new hire’s team and why were these individuals successful?
  • Have any of the new hire’s future colleagues been the the source of complaints from their team members or other employees? If so, what were the nature of these complaints?

Once you have outlined these answers for yourself, turn your answers into a series of questions for your references.

Here’s an example of how to turn your answers into better reference check questions for evaluating candidate fit:

Example Question:

What are the defining culture traits of the department and team that the sales hire will join?

Your Example Answer:

The sales role is part of the sales department, which is located in a dedicated suite to prevent the high call volume of this department from disrupting others at work.

The sales department has a competitive and-results driven culture, but the office space itself is decorated in a fun way, with movie posters and seasonal decorations lining the walls. The head of sales is also known to personally mentor new hires, salespeople who are experiencing difficulty hitting their numbers and sales managers who aren’t leading effectively.

10 of the 12 people on the sales team the hire will join have been working in their current positions for the past 1-2 years and have become a tight knit group. The people on this team are generally outgoing and enjoy going out to lunch several times a week and out to eat and drink a few times a month, usually when one of them has closed a large sale.

Example Reference Check Questions to Check for Fit:

  • Does (Candidate) appear to prefer a “no frills” work area that is free from personalization or do they prefer working somewhere with fun decorations?
  • Do you believe (Candidate) is outgoing and do they appear to enjoy the company of other outgoing co-workers?
  • Do you think that (Candidate) would thrive in a work environment that is very competitive and results-oriented, but that also provides mentorship from leaders? Why or why not?
  • Does (Candidate) spend time with coworkers outside of work hours?
  • Does (Candidate) appear to form close bonds with the people they work closely with?
  • Do you think (Candidate) would enjoy working with a tight knit team, or would this be a challenge for them?

Keep in mind that similar to the skill fit questions, open ended culture fit questions can also lead to lengthy, ambiguous notes that are difficult to interpret accurately. As you may know well, reviewing notes from previous reference check conversations can lead to confusing information and thus inconsistent comparisons between candidates.

Is that candidate creative? How creative did the references think he/she could be? Does the candidate communicate well? Which candidate was deemed a better communicator? Deciding between candidates quickly becomes a guessing game.

Harver Reference reports leave the guessing out of your hiring decision. Our skill fit and culture fit questions ask references to score the candidates on a scale of 1-7, leaving out ambiguity and allowing for cleanly scored reports to show exactly how the candidates are rated overall by previous colleagues or managers.

Reference Check Questions Missing from your List

Traditional reference checks often miss important pieces of information that can uncover critical things you need to know about candidates. Is your candidate honest? Did he/she tell the truth about the length or depth of their relationship with the reference? How can you truly test for honesty? Asking a reference if the candidate is honest may not tell you the whole story.

Harver’s reference checking service automatically checks for candidate honesty, comparing their timeline and connection facts to those given by the references. In addition, Harver Reference provides advanced fraud detection that issues alerts to any questionable activity helping you avoid a bad hire.

How about truly useful feedback about a candidate? What are his/her real weaknesses? Do your reference checks give you an easy way to gather candid, detailed feedback about the candidate’s accomplishments, strengths AND weaknesses? Often references are hesitant to provide negative feedback on the phone. If that’s the case, did you get an accurate picture of what this candidate is like to work with?

Harver Reference’s confidential surveys promote honest feedback, gathering more detailed input on each candidate. This information helps you get a clearer picture of the candidate’s abilities, and his/her weaknesses, so that you can make a smarter hiring decision.

How to ask reference check questions more effectively

Asking better questions in a reference check call may help, but what if the reference doesn’t pick up the phone? Suddenly, “What to ask when calling a reference?” becomes a moot question. No reference discussion means no feedback on the candidate.

Instead of asking yourself “what to ask in a reference call,” consider if there’s a better way to get reference feedback than via playing a game of phone tag.

Harver’s digital reference checks make it easy to collect reference feedback quickly, with minimal effort for you, your recruiters or managers, your candidates and your references.

By going digital, starting the reference check process is easy. Choose from a set of templatized questions (and customize as you see fit), and invite the candidate to log into Harver Reference. Instead of spending hours calling references, input just a few fields of data and empower candidates to invite references themselves, which can be done easily from their desktop or any mobile device.

References can then give feedback anonymously, online, from any device, and their answers are automatically collected into actionable reports. If a reference doesn’t respond, the candidate can send reminders with just the click of a button.

Because the process is so easy on references, recruiters receive back 6+ references on average using Harver Reference, a big jump up from the 2 responses they usually get from phone-based reference checks. Clients boast a time savings of over an hour per candidate while enjoying richer, more candid feedback from more references overall.

Collecting valuable reference feedback means asking questions that give you the performance and fit data that’s critical to the role,, but it also means asking questions via a method that’s most likely to get you the answers you want. Harver’s digital reference check process makes it easy to gather information on your candidate quickly, ensuring that you get higher quality, feedback to inform a smarter hiring decision and avoid bad hires.

Schedule a demo of Harver Reference to learn more about what to ask and how to quickly check references.

Harver Team

Harver Team

Posted on:
July 25, 2023

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