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A Guide to Asking Powerful Reference Check Questions

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Great things happen when you ask the right questions.

You get the information you’re looking for plus things you didn’t realise you needed to know. 

When it comes to reference checks this is particularly important. At the reference stage, you want referees to give you as much relevant information as possible. You want them to answer your questions and then some. 

That’s because the more information you get the more likely you are to: 

  • Learn more about your candidate 
  • Identify areas for improvement 
  • Provide managers with as much information as possible 
  • Spot red flags 

The secret to doing this is asking high-performing reference questions. The challenge is figuring out what these reference questions are. 

In this guide, we’re going to teach you how to ask powerful reference questions and get the best insights into your candidate. 

Why reference checking is important

Hiring without any sort of reference check is far too common. 

Some hiring managers neglect reference checks because they feel they won’t get honest feedback. But this ignores a huge aspect of reference checking. 

A reference check can do a lot more than raise red flags. 

In a nutshell, reference checking ensures compliance, supports hiring decisions, identifies development areas and uncovers opportunities. 

A great reference check will reveal things about your candidate you didn’t already know. You can use this information beyond the hiring process. Wouldn’t it be great to onboard a new hire with a full understanding of their strengths and weaknesses? 

On top of all this, the way we hire has changed and will keep changing. According to the World Economic Forum, 50% of all employees will need to reskill by 2025. As a result, 94% of employers expect employees to learn new skills on the job. 

This means we must hire for potential as well as immediate skills. Asking the right reference questions will help unearth candidate potential. Understanding the potential of a candidate will help you make the right decisions. 

If you’re still wanting to uncover red flags, don’t worry. Properly worded reference questions invite constructive criticism and subtly raise red flags. It’s rare you will be referred to a past colleague who is openly negative. It takes some finesse to get this sort of information. 

Best-practices for reference questions

Before we dive into the details let’s talk about best-practices. 

A weak reference checking process opens the door to discrimination, bias, non-compliance and a poor candidate experience. 

A great reference checking process is compliant, consistent and opens the door to insightful responses. 

Elements of a great reference check

There are a few key things you can do to ensure you conduct a great reference check. Here they are in a nutshell: 

  • Be consistent and ask every referee the same questions to keep things standardised.
  • Ask role-specific questions about the vacant position, the candidate’s position and the industry you’re hiring in.
  • Remain compliant at all times. Don’t ask questions that breach regulations or invite discrimination.
  • Use unbiased questions to remain neutral and give every candidate the same chance.
  • Gain insight by designing questions that deep-dive into the candidate's suitability.
  • Allow convenience by enabling feedback to be completed at any time and on any device.
  • Design your process so final references are delivered quickly.
  • Secure data by making sure what’s shared during the reference checking process is securely collected, stored and managed. 

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Three types of reference questions

Now that you understand what a good reference process looks like, it’s time to understand the types of questions involved in a reference check. 

You can place reference questions into three general categories: essential reference questions, questions about personal attributes and questions about role-specific skills. 

1. Essential reference questions

These questions relate to best-practice and exist to confirm what the candidate has already told you. They seek to understand the nature of a candidate’s relationship with the referee and understand their working history.

Examples of essential reference questions: 

  • What was the candidate’s title? 
  • What is the period your working relationship covered?

Here are five reference questions you can ask to check employment

2. Reference questions to discover personal attributes

Once you know about a candidate’s work history it’s time to better understand their personality.

According to LinkedIn, 91% of talent professionals agree soft skills are important.

Understanding candidate soft skills will help you gauge their future potential. It’ll also help you understand if your candidate is a good culture fit. This information will help decide if a candidate will be a long-term success.

Examples of personal attribute reference questions: 

  • Do you remember a way on how this candidate handled a situation like...?
  • What are the areas of opportunity for this candidate?

3. Reference questions to assess role-specific skills

While understanding personal attributes is important, you also want to know if a candidate will be able to handle the job at hand. That’s where role-specific questions come into play.  

Role-specific questions help you understand how well a candidate does their job. There’s a specific way to get the most information possible about candidate skills. We’ll cover this next. 

Examples of role-specific reference questions:

  • Please rate and comment on their computer skills and ability to adopt new software.
  • Can you comment on the level of supervision they required? How well did they work autonomously?

How to structure reference questions

There’s a certain way to structure reference questions to get best results. Well-structured reference questions are purposeful and invite storytelling. 

The most insightful information comes through storytelling. To find real value in a referee’s responses, you should encourage them to tell you a story. 

Use our BACON formula to achieve this. It’s an acronym that stands for: brief, applicable, compliant, open-ended and neutral.

Our formula for structuring reference questions

Our BACON formula is what we use to structure reference questions. Here’s what the acronym stands for. 

Brief - Keep questions short, sweet and relevant. Lengthy questions will confuse people and lead to shorter answers. 

Applicable - Reference questions serve to provide a historical glimpse into a candidate’s performance. Do not make your questions predictive. Focus on reflection. 

Compliant - Don’t ask questions about a candidate’s age, relationships or family life. This is a major employment law violation.

Open-ended - Ask open-ended questions to invite storytelling and avoid closed “yes” or “no” answers. 

Neutral - Don’t use gender-specific language, ask for specific personal details or even say too much about your company. Keeping questions neutral is best.

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What combination of reference questions to ask 

Now you know what types of reference questions there are and how to structure them. Next up is understanding what combination to put them in! 

Our data shows the highest performing reference checks include:

  • 5 essential questions about a candidate’s previous employment
  • 4-7 questions that target personal attributes
  • 4-7 role-specific questions

This is about 9 to 18 questions all up. These numbers may seem large but if you follow our tips this process will not be cumbersome for referees.  

Create a custom reference check with our free template builder

Now that you’ve learned about how to ask powerful reference questions it’s time to get started! 

As we’ve discussed, there are a few key components to asking powerful reference questions. 

You can now go away and apply these learnings to your current reference checking system. Or you can let our free reference template builder do the hard work for you! 

We’ve built a template using data from one million pieces of feedback, 17 million referee answers and 100,000 unique questions

With this information, we've identified 60 globally recognised core competencies. Our templates are designed to test these competencies.

Templates are available in different languages so you can use it around the world.

You can also use our templates to assist with any type of reference check - Try now. You don’t need to be an Xref customer for access. 

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