Reference Guide: Questions to ask for an employee reference check

February 9, 2023
Reference Check

Reference Guide: Questions to ask for an employee reference check

At Checkmate, we’re pretty passionate about employee reference checks. No surprise there, it’s our bread and butter. But it’s more than just our business. We believe that this stage of the hiring process is one of the most critical. That it’s very risky to give it short shrift, or - worst of all - skip it altogether. There are far too many stories about companies that took shortcuts, and found out too late that they’d missed some important details about a candidate’s background. We don’t think that should ever have to happen.

It’s that belief that drove us to make employee reference checks easier for you.

While our particular type of HR tech makes employee reference check quick and easy, we do get questions. Questions that are fundamental to the employee reference checks themselves. In particular, people ask about the questions to ask when checking references. How many, and what questions are best? Let’s dive in for the answers.

How many reference questions should you ask?

The number of questions to ask is a matter of balance. Ask too few, and you’re probably not going to end up with the information you need. Ask too many, and you risk dropoff. Referees get frustrated with the time commitment, and won’t complete the process.

In our view, a good number to shoot for is about twenty. That may sound like a lot, but some of these will be very quick; yes-and-no answers as opposed to lengthy explanations.

To help you structure a proper employee reference check, we recommend thinking about questions relating to three categories: validation, performance, and compliance. The number of questions in each of these categories, and the specific questions asked, will differ based on your organisation and the position you’re hiring for. But a good reference check should consist of all three.

Validation Reference Check Questions

Validation reference check questions are about confirming the fundamentals. Making sure that the basic facts of their employment all line up against what the candidate has reported to you.

What questions to ask

For this category, referees should be asked questions about the details of a job where they worked together with the candidate. Questions like, ‘When did they work at the company, and what was their job title?’, and ‘How well (or not) did you work together?’. An important question to ask is, ‘Why did they leave?’ As we know, in some cases, a termination can be misrepresented as a voluntary departure. The answer to that question should line up with what you’ve been told.

Why to ask them

Foundational questions like this are partly about filling in blanks. Not every one of these questions gets covered in a job interview, so confirming them at this stage helps round out your knowledge of the candidate you’re hiring. 

There’s another purpose, though. These questions also confirm that what you’ve been told by the candidate is accurate, or - in some cases - identify discrepancies in the record. 

Naturally, a discrepancy doesn’t automatically point to wilful deception. More often than not, it’s just a matter of a typo, or an innocent misremembering of dates. 

Sadly, the truth is that there are people who intentionally misrepresent aspects of their work history, on their resumes and in interviews. Some stretch the dates they were employed to make their history look like it has fewer jumps and gaps. Some give themselves a more responsible sounding title, if they’re applying for jobs that would be above their level of qualification. Others fabricate employment at a company altogether. As a prospective employer, you need to know for sure. And these questions are vital in uncovering the truth.

Compliance Reference Check Questions

Compliance reference check questions are due diligence. They’re basic and factual, but they go beyond the validation questions mentioned above. They probe aspects of a candidate’s work history that may be non-starters for your workplace, or for the job they might be hired into.

What questions to ask

Questions in this category can often be phrased as simple, closed-ended yes-or-no questions. In some cases, a yes or no is all you need. In other cases - particularly if the point in question could have varying levels of severity - you might ask for elaboration if the answer is yes. These questions inquire about things like whether any disciplinary actions were taken against the candidate on the job, or conflicts or accidents involving the candidate. There are two other compliance reference check questions that are quite important to ask in just about every employee reference check: ‘Would you rehire the candidate?’, and ‘Would you recommend the candidate to be hired?’ From a due diligence perspective, the answers to these questions are critical to have on record.

Why to ask them

If there are red flags - ones that are deal-breakers for employment, or at least prompt further discussion - this is where they’ll show up. These questions help to protect your organisation against potential liabilities. Moreover, to be frank, answers to these questions may bring forward information that the candidate hasn’t volunteered. Compliance reference check questions tend to focus on the less rosy events in someone’s working history. Things they don’t particularly enjoy talking about. If they’re there, you need to know about them.

Performance Reference Check Questions

Performance reference check questions are where employee reference checks get interesting. Here, we’re moving beyond the basics, to the point where the rubber hits the road. Their skills, their abilities, and their on-the-job results.

What questions to ask

Performance reference check questions range from quite general to highly specific. 

General reference check questions relate to the characteristics that tend to make someone a high performer, or, well … not. Questions like these are asked during an employee background check when hiring for just about any kind of position. 

They might include very broad questions like, ‘What were their primary responsibilities?’, and ‘How would you rate their overall job performance?’. You may ask questions related to particular qualities that are important for the new hire to have, such as, ‘How reliable were they?’, ‘How would you rate their attention to detail?’, ‘How did you find their time management and organisational skills?’, and ‘How well did they get along with others?’

Going beyond the general, every employee reference check should include some questions specific to the work the candidate does, and to the job they’d do with your company.

For someone applying for a job in finance or banking, one question might be, ‘How would you rate their understanding of financial reporting standards, taxation, rules and regulations?’ If you haven't already asked it as a validation reference check question, you might also ask the referee if the candidate has a particular licence or certification that’s required.

Hiring someone in a hands-on technology position? You might want to ask, ‘How would you describe their programming abilities, and the quality of their code?’, or ‘What tools and software (and/or hardware) are they competent in using, and how would you rate their skills in each one?’

If you’re hiring someone into a telephone-based customer service position, you should probably ask ‘What did you think about their phone manner?’. In some positions, another fair question might be, ‘How well did they handle customer complaints?’

For a front-line position in hospitality, foodservice, or tourism, you may ask, ‘Were they approachable and courteous towards guests?’ and ‘How would you describe their personal presentation and grooming?’

When it comes to hiring a new person in HR, it could be appropriate to ask, ‘What was their involvement in hiring staff? What about dismissing staff?’, and ‘How was their communication with candidates, and with new employees?’

Hiring your next sales and business development superstar? A couple of good questions to ask are, ‘How would you describe their selling style’, and - most important of all - ‘Did they achieve their sales targets?’

Why to ask them

Simply put, past performance is the best possible indicator of future performance. These reference check questions are about how well the candidate has done their job in the past, which usually correlates pretty directly to how they’ll do their job in the future.

Putting it all together with reference check software

It probably won’t come as too much of a surprise to know that the reference check questions above are included in the reference check templates that we provide to our customers. Those questions, and dozens of others, all tailored to employee reference checks for a wide range of occupations. But of course, you don’t have to stop there. You can omit any question you don’t need, and add as many different questions you wish. Every one of the questions can be tweaked and edited until they’re perfect for your specific situation.

Referees can take their time with the reference check questions, considering the answers carefully and responding at their convenience. Best of all, the referees’ responses to each of the questions become part of your employee record. In their own words, mitigating bias, with less risk of misinterpretation.

Want some help designing an employee reference check of your own? It’s quick and easy to get started, and it’s free to try. Create your own account today, and get in touch with us if you’ve got any questions.