background check references

In this post, we will explain these checks, why they matter, how they work, and how they can help you gain a more complete picture of a candidate.

What Is a Reference Check?

When you hire a background check company to vet a job candidate, you are usually asking them to either pull public records on your behalf (such as criminal records, driving records, civil court records, or credit records) or verify information that the candidate provided on their resume (such as work history, education, and other credentials). 

Reference checks don’t fit precisely into either of these categories. They are neither straightforward public record searches about a candidate nor verifications of key details such as job titles or college degrees. Rather, checking references is a hiring manager’s chance to speak with someone who knows the candidate well and can discuss the candidate’s character, work ethic, strengths, weaknesses, teamwork approach, and work style, among other details.

The specific dynamics and questions in a reference check will vary depending on who you are interviewing and what their relationship is to the candidate. Many employers assume that reference interviews and work history verifications are the same and expect that the most critical questions to ask on a reference check concern details such as job title, employment dates, and job responsibilities. While these topics may come up in some cases, if the candidate’s listed reference is a former manager or employer, the core benefit of the reference check will be to allow a hiring manager to ask more subjective questions. 

During employment verification checks, past employers are often hesitant to provide answers to questions that aren’t objective. Discussing matters of opinion—by speaking about a past employee’s work ethic, for instance—has the potential to open up a past employer to a defamation claim. As a result, work history verifications usually focus on verifying resume details. 

When a candidate lists someone on their reference list, there is implied permission for a hiring manager to ask more subjective reference check questions—and for the reference to answer those questions candidly.

10 Best Questions to Ask References

Now that we understand the difference between work history verification checks and reference checks, let’s explore the types of reference checking questions that form the backbone of this interview step. 

1. What is or was your relationship with the candidate?

Step one should be to establish who you are talking to and what kind of relationship they share with your candidate. 

Job seekers will sometimes list past bosses, managers, or supervisors as references, but not always. Colleagues, team members, and coworkers; subordinates or direct reports; mentors; and individuals they’ve volunteered with in the past are just a few of the categories into which references may fall. For candidates who are currently in school or have recently graduated, you may also be speaking with professors, teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, or school administrators. 

Asking about the relationship up front will allow you to establish how well the individual knows your candidate plus the scope and nature of their relationship, how long they’ve known each other, and other key details that will help you orient the rest of the conversation.

2. What is your impression of the candidate?

Moving to a broad question can provide an open-ended opportunity for the interviewee to speak about the candidate. Asking this question can net you details about the candidate’s character, personality, work style, work ethic, strengths, weaknesses, key skills, and other details without having to ask specific reference check questions covering each category. 

Asking a broad question can also help establish a laidback, conversational atmosphere, which can set the reference at ease and inspire more candid thoughts. Just be sure to take notes, so you can ask follow-up questions later.

3. Which main strengths and weaknesses do you think that the candidate has?

While asking about your interviewee’s overall impression of your candidate may steer the conversation naturally toward strengths and weaknesses, it’s also worth asking this question directly. Learning what a reference has to say about a candidate’s best or worst attributes can give you a window into the candidate’s past work performance and how well they might perform in the position that your organization is trying to fill. 

It’s helpful to hear about what a candidate believes their own strengths and weaknesses are, but hearing insights from a third party is often more accurate and more valuable. Their answers may spotlight reasons to hire, red flags that should prompt you to stay away, or areas for improvement that you should know about if you choose to make a job offer.

4. What can you tell me about this candidate’s teamwork mentality?

It’s essential to ask a question about your candidate’s ability to work with others and function as part of a team. While teamwork and collaboration are more critical to some jobs than others, they can affect everything from company culture and staff morale to communication across the workplace.

5. How would you define the candidate’s preferred work style?

Professionals work in different ways. Some love a collaborative, bustling environment, while others are self-starters and prefer to be left to their own devices as they work. Asking references for insights into a candidate’s work style can help you determine whether the individual is a good fit for your organization. For instance, if your office runs on a schedule of regular meetings and check-ins, a less social and more independent worker might not be as strong a fit as someone who thrives on regular contact and interaction with coworkers. On the other hand, someone who craves a social work environment might not be the right candidate for a remote job.

6. Tell me about a time when you were impressed by the candidate’s work.

“Work ethic” is a broad term that incorporates multiple different values, from hard work to persistence to punctuality to overall professionalism. Rather than asking about a candidate’s work ethic, try asking the reference to recall a time when they were impressed by the candidate. 

The story that they choose to tell could reveal the candidate’s work style, a habit of going above and beyond to complete a job, or a major accomplishment. Hearing a specific anecdote will tell you more about your candidate’s work ethic than hearing the answer to a broader query about work ethic. 

7. What advice would you give me if I hire this candidate, to help them thrive?

This question is vital because it can prompt an array of different responses. Some references may speak to certain skills or proficiencies that would help a candidate reach their highest potential, which can inform your onboarding strategies or your ongoing education and training plans for the candidate if you hire them. Other answers might lead to tips on how to effectively manage the candidate. Regardless of the answers that you receive, they will provide information that could continue to be valuable after you make a hiring decision.

8. Would you recommend this candidate for the job?

In most cases, job seekers choose professional references who will speak positively on their behalf. As a result, the answer to this question is unlikely to be “no”—as long as the candidate asked permission to list the professional reference and is on good terms with that individual. Hearing someone make a case for why a candidate is worthy of a job offer may help you to decide whether your own views align with that stance. 

9. Other reference check questions

There are other reference check questions that you might ask depending on the reference, their relationship to the candidate, and the information that you glean from other questions that you’ve asked. For instance, if you are talking to a manager or supervisor, it’s worth asking about job title, responsibilities, employment dates, reasons for leaving, and other employment verification details. If you are talking to a past coworker, you might ask for a more on-the-ground perspective on what it was like to work with the candidate.

Alternatively, if an interviewee lists specific weaknesses that you find to be particularly troubling—such as communication issues, procrastination, or difficulty taking direction from managers—you might ask for elaboration or inquire into how those behaviors affected job performance.

How to Evaluate a Reference Check

Ultimately, there are many reference interview questions to ask. The essential consideration as you move through the interview is how you will evaluate the answers in real-time. 

Are you getting the information that you wanted from the reference questions that you are asking? Is the reference not being as forthcoming as you expected them to be? Asking yourself these kinds of questions throughout the interview can help you decide whether to adjust course, end the interview, or ask follow-up questions to fill in specific details.


Which questions are asked in a reference check?

Employment reference check questions can vary and may touch upon an array of qualities, including character, dependability, work ethic, integrity, teamwork mentality, and past job details. Consider all these categories and more when you check references.

How do you conduct a reference check?

Most employers will ask candidates to provide a list of two or three professional references on their job application or attach a list to their resume or cover letter. After selecting a few final candidates for the job, the hiring manager will contact the references—usually over the phone—and conduct a brief interview incorporating their top reference check questions. At Blinkx, we can also carry out reference interviews on your behalf.

What is included in a reference check?

The specific reference check questions that hiring managers choose to ask about a candidate will vary depending on the position, the industry, the skills or experience needed to succeed in the role, and the identity of the reference. We offer a list of recommended questions to ask when checking references.

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