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How to respond to questions in a reference check

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How to respond to questions in a reference check

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As you progress through your career, it is highly likely that at some stage you will be asked to provide a reference for a former or current colleague or employee as part of their job search. 

You could also be asked to give a reference when you have not worked with the candidate. You may give a reference as a mentor or academic supervisor - this is known as a character reference. 

Regardless of the type of reference you have been asked to give, it is important to know that an effective reference can be the difference between an individual securing a job or not. 

As such, it’s essential as a referee that you know what to expect, are well prepared, and know what’s required to provide a good reference.

If you respect an individual’s abilities and personality traits, then you may not hesitate at all to agree to provide a reference. However, if you’re unsure about giving a reference, there’s no harm in turning it down. A lukewarm reference can sometimes do more harm than good.

But for now, if you do say yes to taking part in a reference check, let’s focus on everything you need to know to respond effectively to questions in a reference check.

The importance of giving a good reference

As we already mentioned, a positive reference can be vital in a job seeker’s road to success. At Xref, we track reference sentiment through word count. The more words that are written, the more highly the referee tends to view the candidate. This analysis is a result of human behaviour. Humans would rather say nothing than something negative. 

A good reference can provide a job application with a real edge and is an effective measure for employers in separating candidates who appear similar in their resumes.

If someone has asked you to provide them with a reference, they likely view you with respect. They are bestowing a lot of trust in you, so it’s important to validate that trust.

A good reference doesn't mean saying that the candidate was perfect. A good reference gives open and honest feedback on strengths, areas of opportunity (or weaknesses), and relevant information that could help better understand the future hire.

A reference check is your chance to help the potential employer get to know the candidate better. Most hiring managers expect that candidates can improve and are just looking to learn what balance of good qualities and opportunities for growth they might need to prepare for.

From an employer’s perspective, reference checking ensures compliance, supports hiring decisions, identifies development areas, and uncovers opportunities. 

What are employers looking for in a reference?

In a nutshell, employers want to gain deeper insights into a specific candidate by hearing from a referee of theirs. A well-executed reference check will allow them to:

  • Learn more about candidates
  • Make confident and informed hiring decisions
  • Understand how to engage and retain new hires

A reference can be either in a written format answering questions in an online portal like Xref’s Reference Checking software. Alternatively, it could be a phone conversation with the prospective employer’s hiring manager or department manager.

How to prepare for a reference check

If you’ve been asked to provide someone with a reference, there are some ways you can prepare.

Firstly, you should re-familiarise yourself with the person you will be giving a reference for as well as their work. It may have been years since you last worked with them, and you want to make sure you are giving accurate information about their skills and the projects they worked on.

It may be worthwhile having a discussion with them to find out about the role they are interviewing for. Is the position similar to their previous role? This knowledge can help you to prepare for the types of questions that may come up in the reference check.

However, the new role in question may be totally different to their previous role, so specific feedback may not be necessary. In this instance, you can still provide helpful insight into things like project management, time management, people skills and attention to detail.

You should also ensure you allocate enough time to provide honest feedback. This is easier when asked to provide written responses compared to over a phone call. An Xref Reference Check is completed online and allows referees to complete references in their own time, say out of business hours. Referees are also given the option to save their progress and go back to it at a later date.

What types of questions are asked in a reference check?

When an organisation conducts a reference check, they can ask a variety of questions including; probing questions, open-ended questions and simple, closed questions. They should not be leading questions as this could introduce bias. 

Xref data shows the highest performing reference checks include:

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

Three types of reference questions‍

Generally, reference questions can be divided into three categories:

  • Essential questions
  • Personal attribute questions
  • Job-specific, skill-set questions.

1. Essential reference questions ‍

Essential questions attempt to confirm what has already been stated and aim to understand the nature of the candidate's past work experience. 

Examples of essential reference questions include: 

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

2. Reference questions to discover personal attributes ‍

Once a candidate’s work history has been explored, a reference check may dive into understanding their personality better.

According to LinkedIn, 91% of talent professionals consider soft skills to be essential.

Understanding a candidate’s soft skills can help an employer gauge their future. 

By asking questions about a candidate's personal qualities, it can help assess their suitability and potential for long-term success in the company. Knowing how they would handle different situations can help determine if they are a good fit for the company culture. 

Examples of personal attribute reference questions: 

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

These types of reference check questions are sometimes known as ‘behavioural questions’. Learning from past behaviours can indicate how a candidate may act or react to certain situations in the future. 

It pays to know what questions may be asked in a reference check so you can be prepared and have scenarios ready. 

3. Reference questions to assess role-specific skills‍

While understanding personal attributes is important, role-specific questions help an organisation know if a candidate can handle the job they applied for. 

Examples of role-specific reference questions include:

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

LinkedIn also recently posted "13 questions you should ask when checking references”, which is worth reading.

Three tips for giving a good reference

To ensure your reference is as helpful as possible for the hiring manager, take note of the following three tips.

1. Keep the information relevant and factual

When providing a reference for your former employee or colleague, it's important to focus on the most relevant features of their capabilities. Whilst it may be tempting to predict how they will perform in the context of their potential new job; your reference should be reflective of their previous performance and the behaviours you witnessed. Always keep the information in your reference factual.


Q: Please rate and comment on how they worked with and related to their team and management.

A: In my experience of working with her, I observed her working relationships with other team members and they were mostly positive. She was confident in her abilities and was keen to collaborate on projects, but there were occasions when she made decisions independently without consulting other team members first, which caused friction.

Try to avoid using generic terminologies that don't clearly highlight an applicant's characteristics or achievements. Ensure the feedback you provide in your reference is specific to the individual's performance and behaviour, using examples to highlight their strengths and achievements.

2. Make your answers specific

Try to avoid using generic terminologies that don't clearly highlight an applicant's characteristics or achievements. Ensure the feedback you provide in your reference is specific to the individual's performance and behaviour, using examples to highlight their strengths and achievements.


Q: What do you consider to be their main strengths?

A: He is extremely well-organised and strategically minded. For example, he was tasked with managing our most recent marketing campaign end-to-end, and the results were outstanding – the company raised over $150,000 worth of sales due to his efforts.

3. Maintain transparency and authenticity

It is imperative to remain honest and authentic throughout the entire course of the reference checking process. Misinformation will reflect poorly on the candidate and do them more harm than good in their new role if they can't carry out what you have said they can. 

For instance, when asked about a candidate's weaknesses, rest assured that detailing areas of opportunity is helpful for hiring managers as they can understand how to help a new employee, so be as honest as possible. It’s also worth noting that a weakness in one role could be a strength in another.


Q: What do you consider to be their biggest weakness? 

A: A weakness of his is stakeholder management. There have been occasions when a project required the input from different stakeholders such as graphic designers and video editors, and he was not able to effectively communicate project expectations and align team members to ensure deliverables were achieved. However, I am sure that with more experience in project management he will be able to master these skills.

The feedback above is helpful for hiring managers. It wouldn’t necessarily be a deal breaker, but it would manage expectations and give them an idea of where they can support the candidate if they were to join the organisation.


Reference checks are commonly the last stage in the hiring process and an important one. Whilst providing a reference isn’t necessarily a skill taught at school or university, it is something that you are likely to encounter at some stage of your career, so you should be prepared.

As a referee, you are in a position of trust, so it is a good idea to be prepared before completing a reference. You must also be as transparent and as honest with your feedback as possible as this helps future employers make hiring decisions with confidence.

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