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Reference Check Questions

One of the most important decisions that a manager can make is the decision to hire an employee.

In addition to evaluating your candidate pool, interviewing candidates, and initiating background checks, one critical step when hiring an employee is to check the references of your top candidates.  Typically, past performance is a strong indicator of future performance and can reveal an individual's professionalism, productivity, job skills, and interpersonal communication skills.

Checking references will assist you in selecting the right talent for your department and will also help protect the University by mitigating the risk of negligent hiring situations. Negligent hiring situations can be costly to the University and cause serious morale and productivity issues within a program or department. Research shows that employers lose approximately 75 percent of all negligent hiring claims.


Tips for Conducting Reference Checks

  • Develop a list of questions (refer to the example questions provided);
  • Be consistent in the questions you ask (i.e., ask the same question of each reference provider for each candidate);
  • Don’t miss any red flags  and be comfortable asking follow-up questions if needed;
  • Confirm the information as presented by the candidate in their material and interview;
  • Check a reference of a former supervisor (best practice to contact at least two supervisors if within a relevant period of time);
  • Remember confidentiality obligations and comfort level to share sensitive information;
  • Establish rapport of the reference provider before you begin the questions;
  • Document the reference check information obtained (refer to the example provided); and
  • Ensure that your questions are job-related.

Reference check form example


Examples of Reference Check Questions

  • How would you describe his/her communication skills both verbally and in writing?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s ability to actively listen and understand the needs of his/her constituent groups and deliver quality services or effective systems to meet those needs? Can you tell me about a time when you observed his/her strength in this regard?
  • Give me an example of how he/she sells ideas and projects to others.
  • Can you describe a situation where the candidate needed to influence others in order to achieve a goal or objective? Was the candidate successful?
  • In the (job specialty) area, how would you rate (candidate’s) ability to understand complex issues and prepare clear and accurate presentations, project plans and proposals to meet those issues/challenges?
  • Describe some of this individual’s core professional values. Did the individual demonstrate honesty and integrity?
  • How do you rate the individual's ability to plan short-term? Long-term?
  • What were the beginning and ending employment dates for the candidate?
  • How long have you known the candidate and in what capacity?
  • What was the candidate’s ending salary?
  • What positions did the candidate hold at your organization?
  • What were the individual's most recent job duties?
  • Why did the candidate leave your company?
  • Did the candidate have any attendance issues? (You cannot inquire into medically related absences.)
  • Is there any reason why your company would not rehire this candidate?
  • Would you recommend the candidate for a position at another company? Why or why not?
  • In your opinion, what are the candidate's strengths? Weaknesses?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s overall performance?
  • Do you think this individual will perform well as a [job title]? (You may need to provide a summary of the purpose of the position)
  • Were there any supervision issues that may be of concern?
  • Describe (candidate’s) interaction with management and peers. Did this individual get along well with management and peers?
  • Describe (candidate’s) work style in interacting with supervisors, subordinates, peers and people outside the organization.
  • How would you describe (candidate’s) ability to work successfully with others toward a set of shared goals? Can you provide a specific example of a time when you felt he/she specifically contributed to a successful outcome? What was this individual’s role relative to that of others?
  • Would you describe (candidate) as a team player? Why or why not? 
  • How would you describe his/her decision-making process? Did the individual make sound and timely decisions?
  • How well does he/she make decisions, particularly when dealing with incomplete or ambiguous information? Can you give me an example?
  • There are times in complex and culturally diverse organizations like ours when one may need to get things done without being able to rely on formal lines of power and hierarchy. Can you tell me about a time when (candidate) needed to get something done and it just didn’t seem viable to work through a formal process? How did he/she handle that? What was the outcome?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s motivational style? Was the candidate a motivated self-starter?
  • How would you describe the candidate's leadership, managerial or supervisory skills?
  • Did the candidate supervise other people? How many? How effectively?
  • Describe his/her interaction with subordinates. Was the candidate respected by subordinates?
  • Describe the candidate’s ability to engage and motivate others to be successful.
  • Describe the candidate’s ability to manage crisis, pressure or stress.
  • How would you describe the individual's technical skills?
  • In consideration of his/her work style, can you give me an example of his/her ability to focus and complete projects and work in a timely and through manner?
  • What did you find that motivated the candidate to do his/her best work?
  • How would you describe the quantity and quality of output generated by this candidate?
  • How does he/she respond to directions?
  • What was the greatest challenge in supervising?
  • From what I’ve told you about this position, what do you perceive as the candidate’s greatest learning curve coming into this position?
  • Would you comment on the candidate’s competencies related to:  
    • Organizational skills
    • Attention to detail
    • Ability to adapt to changing priorities
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