8 Useful Questions to Ask When Conducting a Reference Check

8 Useful Questions to Ask When Conducting a Reference Check

You can gather close to all of the information that you need to make a hiring decision through a candidate’s resume, phone screen, and an in-person interview. However, there is one more crucial step you need to take to determine whether someone is the right fit for an open position: a reference check.


Contacting a job candidate’s references will help you better understand what it’s like to manage and interact with your potential new employee, and determine how well they’ll fit within your company’s culture, along with the fulfillment of their job duties. Asking the right reference check questions is the best way to accomplish this. 


To help you in the reference check process, consider this background information along with eight useful questions to ask.


  • Why You Should Check References
  • Important Questions to Ask References such as:
    •  What was it like to work with this candidate?
    • What are this candidate’s greatest strengths?
    • What were this candidate’s biggest areas of opportunity while you worked together?
    • What was one of this candidate’s best accomplishments while you worked together?
    • If you could hire this candidate again, would you? Why or why not?
    • Why did this candidate leave your company?
    • How did this candidate handle challenges?
    •  Tell me something about this candidate that might not be listed on their resume.


Why you should check references:


When you interview a candidate about their employment history,  their answers can be biased, or even inaccurate, because they want to make the best impression possible. 


Getting the perspective of a third party who has worked alongside or managed the candidate can provide better insight into how the candidate behaves on the job, their punctuality, demeanor, and how often they went above and beyond expectations of their role. 


There are three primary reasons to check a candidate’s references. First, a reference can verify whether the candidate has the job experience and skills that they claim to have. Conducting a reference check can also give you a glimpse into the candidate’s character, such as their willingness to work hard, their relationship with their superior, and how well they met challenges.


Additionally, a reference can share unique skills and abilities that the candidate may not have shared, or further validate those they did share on their resume or during the interview.


When asking candidates for references, request that they include at least one to two former managers. While the perspectives of their past coworkers are important, leaders are responsible for regularly evaluating their employees and can often provide more details about the candidate’s prior job performance.


8 important questions to ask references


The questions you ask references will determine how well you’re able to uncover the information that you will need to make the right hiring decision. Here are eight reference-check questions you can use to help determine whether the candidate you’re pursuing is the best fit for the job.


1. What was it like to work with this candidate?

Asking this question will prompt the candidate’s reference to share their day-to-day experience either working alongside or managing the candidate. 


Their response can shed light on things like their general attitude in the workplace, how they treated colleagues, how they performed their job duties, how they tackled assigned projects, and whether they were punctual, reliable, and trustworthy. This will give you a better idea of how well this candidate will mesh with the rest of your team and company culture.


2. What are the greatest strengths of the candidate?

While the candidate has likely already shared their strengths, abilities, and skills with you, colleagues and managers may see their’ strengths differently. 


Often, the qualities other people notice are the ones we exhibit the most. By asking this question, you can identify which skills and abilities you can expect the candidate to display most often if hired. 


3. What were this candidate’s biggest areas of opportunity while you worked together?

Everyone has weaknesses and skills that they need to improve upon, but it’s crucial to make sure that a candidate’s shortcomings don’t conflict with critical elements of the job you’re hiring for. 


Asking this question will help clarify specific things that the candidate may need to address in order to meet their full potential, or at the very least get hired. Just be sure to consider the length of time that’s passed since the reference worked with the candidate as they may have overcome these weaknesses in the meantime.


4. What was one of this candidate’s best accomplishments while you worked together?

It’s important to determine whether or not a candidate is someone who regularly goes above and beyond their required duties before you extend an offer of employment. 


By asking this question, you will give references the opportunity to reflect on the moments when the candidate leveraged their strengths, displayed unique skills, or overcame a difficult challenge. This can provide you with insight into how the candidate may behave when faced with similar situations or challenges in their new role. 


5. If you could hire this candidate again, would you? Why or why not?

This simple question may be the most critical one on the list. A reference who would rehire someone shows that the candidate is honorable and adds value to a team and company. 


However, if a reference would hesitate to hire a candidate again, that could be a major red flag. Be sure to understand the reference’s reasoning behind their answer, good or bad, before making your decision.


6. Why did this candidate leave your company?

Whether the candidate was laid off, looking for new challenges, or switching career fields, asking references this question in particular, will help validate what the candidate has already told you. If the reasons don’t match up, this may be somewhat of a warning sign. 


7. How did this candidate handle challenges?

You’ve likely asked the candidate a similar question, but consider getting a reference’s perspective on how they’ve handled difficult situations (e.g., tough deadlines, rude customers, interpersonal conflict, tight budgets, etc.).


By asking this question, the reference will be able to help reveal how well the candidate works under pressure and how they come across to others during stressful situations — i.e., do they appear calm and composed or agitated and annoyed?


8. Tell me something about this candidate that might not be listed on their resume.

This purposely vague question gives references a chance to elaborate on any of the candidate’s skills, traits, shortcomings,  or accomplishments that you might have missed during the interview process thus far. For example, a reference who worked closely with the candidate might be able to talk about their non-industry experience (e.g., side jobs, volunteer work, impressive skills), hobbies outside of work, or unique qualities, characteristics, or personality traits.


The reference check is an integral part of the hiring process and can help you uncover information about a candidate you may not otherwise discover, or get to the bottom of vagueness from the candidate. By asking the right questions, you can gain a better understanding of the individual you’re considering and determine whether they’re the best fit for the job.

PCG logo

If you're hiring and interested in working with a recruiter, check out our Employer Toolkit to help answer any questions you may have about our recruiters and recruiting process.

What people say about our recruiters and recruiting process:

“I have worked with Gary and his team for over 20 years and have found them to be one of the best and most knowledgeable recruiters I’ve ever worked with. Their candidates are spot on, the follow-up is impeccable, especially with their guaranteed replacements. You will not go wrong working with Peterson Consulting Group. I recommend them without hesitation.” – Jerry Miller, Exec VP  Ames Construction, Inc


“Peterson Consulting Group and my recruiter Josh changed my life. You won’t feel like you’re working with a recruiter, you will feel like you’re working with a friend who has your best interest. I would say good luck in your job search but you won’t need it if you work with Josh. I’m 100% confident you will find what you’re looking for.”

– Bryan Scates


“We have known and worked with Gary for many decades and seen him be a true leader and teammate to the industry. Gary and his team are leaders in a heavy civil placement through knowledge, networking, and having a finger on the pulse of the industry. I’m proud to do business and highly recommend Gary and his team at Peterson Consulting Group for any construction recruiting needs. – George Wehner, Monks Construction

Want to find out more about the benefits of working with a construction recruiter?