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5 Type of Questions You Should Ask When Reference Checking

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'What to ask references?' This is a very common question that companies that check references ask themselves. Relevant insights obtained from answers provided in the reference checking process is dependant on the quality of the questionnaires used.

Whatever the position, these 5 type of questions will improve the outcome of any thorough reference checking process. Cultural fit, accuracy of information, future potential, readiness for the role as well as potential flags should be identified when a good questionnaire is used.

"If you really want to paint a picture of a candidate you need to take a close look at your questioning". GSA

5 Reference Questions that Should Be Asked for Employment Checking

When conducting a reference check, questions are key. A good set of questions should provide the foundation to confirm data provided by the candidate on CV and interviews, comprehend in more detail the level of experience of the applicant, understand reasons for leaving as part of the hiring due diligence.

"It's golden to have someone explain in their own words exactly what a candidate is like." RecruitR

Employment checks are a great opportunity to obtain insights from referees, identify strengths or weaknesses for a potential hire, feedback from previous managers that highlights areas of potential growth as well as highlighting possible red flags that become relevant for hiring decisions. An effective questionnaire should include the following type of questions:

1. Questions that clarify the candidate and referee relationship

branded part 1, candidate/referee relationship graphic

You need to get a clear understanding of the relationship between the candidate and the referee, so you can judge the reliability and relevance of their feedback and how it relates to the candidate’s potential new role.

Request details to verify:

  • When they worked together and in what capacity.
  • The nature of their relationship and the reporting line.

Example of questions that will help you check the candidate and referee relationship:

1. What is the period your working relationship covered?

2. What was the nature of the working relationship and what was the reporting line?

2. Questions that verify the previous role of the candidate

Branded part 2, role and employment graphic

Job-hungry candidates can be prone to a little exaggeration. So, you must confirm that the information on their CV is accurate. This questions provide the opportunity for checking experience before hiring.

Explore areas such as:

  • The candidate's job title and role.
  • Their general duties and responsibilities.

Example of questions that will help you understand the role the candidate performed:

1. What was the candidates title?

2. What was the focus of the role as well as main duties and responsibilities?

3. Questions that provide insights on previous performance

Branded part 3, previous performance graphic

A CV can be tailored to fit a role, it’s only when you ask a previous employer for their perspective on a candidate in a properly conducted reference check that you can have the big picture of a proper assessment of their skills and how well they might perform in your business.

Ask questions that will:

  • Reveal the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Uncover potential areas for improvement.

Example of questions that will help you obtain insights of previous performance of your candidate:

1. Can you please talk about the strengths of the candidate?

2. What are the areas of opportunity for this candidate?

4. Questions that confirm reasons for leaving

Branded part 4, reasons for leaving graphic

Understanding why and when a candidate left a previous role can offer a new employer some insight into the lasting impression they’ve left with a previous employer.

Consider questions that confirm:

  • The reason (if known) why the candidate left.
  • Whether the reference provider would hire them again.

Example of questions that will help you confirm reasons for leaving from previous employers:

1.What was the reason for this person to leave the company?

2. Would you hire this person again and why?

5. Questions that explore additional information

Branded part 5, additional information graphic

It’s important to allow the referee to provide any further information they feel is relevant but falls outside the questions you ask. This final phase also offers the opportunity to ask the referee if they are happy to be contacted at a later date.

Take the opportunity to:

  • Ask for any further comments.
  • Confirm if the reference provider is happy to be contacted again for additional details.
  • Asking for examples of how the candidate handled particular situations is also a good idea.

Example of questions that will help you find valuable information for your hiring decision:

1. Are there any other comments that you would like to add?

2. Do you remember a way on how this candidate handled a situation like...?

Best Practices Reference Checking Questionnaire

10 Questions ready to use

Here is the compilation of the best practice reference check questions mentioned above. These questions in this questionnaire are compliant and answers provide relevant insights:

1. What is the period your working relationship covered?

2. What was the nature of the working relationship and what was the reporting line?

3. What was the candidates title?

4. What was the focus of the role as well as main duties and responsibilities?

5.Can you please talk about the strengths of the candidate?

6. What are the areas of opportunity for this candidate?

7. What was the reason for this person to leave the company?

8. Would you hire this person again and why?

9. Are there any other comments that you would like to add?

10. Do you remember a way on how this candidate handled a situation like...?

Questions and Reference Checks: Best Practices

What Questions Should you Avoid During Reference Checking? 

When reference checking there are some questions that have to be avoided. Aiming for better insights and staying compliant are the reasons why these questions should not be asked:

1. Long-winded questions

Referees are busy and cannot commit too much time to trying to understand your questions before responding. It's important to ensure that your questions are short, sweet and relevant. The referee doesn't need unnecessary information about the working environment the candidate will be entering, for example, you just need them to tell you about their experiences with the candidate.

2. Predictive questions

Your questions should be reflective, not predictive. They should offer a historical glimpse into a candidate's past performance, which means you cannot expect a referee to provide their take on how the candidate will perform in your role.

3. Discriminatory questions

It may sounds obvious that your questions should not be discriminatory, but ensuring this is the case can be more difficult than you might expect. Ensure that you keep your questions neutral, focused on the needs of the role and avoid any personal probes.

4. Closed questions

Great questions incite stories and if you ask something that could be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” you’ll limit the information you receive in return. Keep your questions open and ask for a story about the candidate's performance.


Why Conduct Reference Checks?

Bias, unconscious or not, is one of the key reasons why it is vital to not only conduct employment reference checks but ensure you ask the right questions when you do.A resume will give you an idea of career achievements and qualifications, while an interview will help you to get to know a candidate in person.A reference check acts as the source of truth, allowing you to verify what you’ve been told and help you explore any potential strengths or weaknesses.

"You can put any number of steps into your process, but reference checking is the first opportunity that you get to hear about a candidate in someone else's words. It's the first time you introduce a third party to the conversation that, up until then, has been between just you and the candidate."   YMCA NSW

When Should You Request a Reference Check?

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The best time to conduct a reference may depend on the industry.

The biggest challenge is ensuring that we recruit the right type of person to fit a specific role.   HealthVision

If you’re working in an environment with high staff turnover and a focus on lower-skilled/entry-level jobs, you could conduct references as part of the application process.

In this case, the reference checking process helps to filter candidates before investing too much time interviewing.

Alternatively, for professional, higher-skilled positions, references are usually requested once a job offer has been verbally accepted.

Should candidates know when reference checks are conducted?

This is a very common question that candidates have, applicants like to know if employment reference checks would be conducted before or after an interview or if they are a sign that a job offer is about to happen.

It would be best if you always let candidates know when you plan to request a reference so they can advise their referees. Communication and clarity improves the candidate experience, it is best that the applicant understands how and when references are conducted as part of the hiring process.

"As a general rule of thumb referencing is done at the last part of the process once an offer has been made." Police Now

Anxiety is usually high at this stage in the recruitment process so it helps to let candidates know how long the reference checking process may take.

When using automated reference checks, the average turnaround time can be reduced to as little as 24 hours but this time could be different depending on the method followed, phone calls could take longer.

It is essential that the candidate is explained that reference checking aims to provide you with insightful and instructive data to help you identify strengths, training needs and weaknesses or possible red flags.

Employment checks are  essential in demonstrating your due diligence on a candidate and ensuring you make confident hiring or placement decisions, ensuring potential bad hires are avoided.

The Benefits of Automated Reference Checking

man at home  working on laptop with dog next to him

Automated reference checking solutions, like Xref, streamline the process, reduce your time to hire, ensure your process is compliant and add a layer of security to your reference checks. Learn more about the Xref platform >>

The lack of standardisation offered by manual reference checks means they are often conducted differently between each role and check. While those conducting a reference may have a template of questions to work from, the often conversational nature of them can lead to unconscious bias or discriminatory questions slipping through the net.

"Since implementing Xref’s automated platform, we’ve gone from a reference checking turnaround of up to three weeks, to receiving an Xref report within 24 hours." Planit

With automated reference checking software like Xref's platform, you can be confident that you are asking:

  • Consistent questions with every check taken for the same role
  • Compliant questions that provide only the information you need
  • The right number of questions and avoiding asking too many
  • The right mix of questions about both soft and role-specific skills

Conducting Reference Checks Remotely

Woman on laptop working at table

With many businesses now operating with dispersed teams, reference checking has become even more critical in ensuring that you have key insights about your potential new hires.

As you may never have met a candidate before welcoming them into your business, a reference check offers the perfect opportunity to access insights about their capabilities before you make an offer.

Remote work is also adds new challenges and greater emphasis to the importance of secure data collection, storage and management, since it is harder to share that information between colleagues who are working from different locations.

I’m a convert! We have been using Xref during the COVID-19 pandemic - a time during when referees even harder to reach - yet with Xref we’re seeing references returned in 52 hours on average, with no phone or email chasing on our part.    Just Education

In order to remain compliant with data privacy measures, an online reference checking process is key. This will ensure you are able to securely store data in a centralised platform and share it only with those who have verified access.


Use a template for your questionnaire

Build it in seconds!

If you want help building your own questionnaire following best practices, try our questions template builder, you can build it in a few clicks, it is free and it will help you cover all the basics when checking references for your future hires.

"We use Xref to conduct reference checks as part of our recruitment process for all of these roles. It’s great because we have a few different templates, but we’re focused on making them even more targeted for specific roles this year. "   Torrens University Australia

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