Checking references: 10 questions to ask every referee

How to check references for a potential employee

As an employer recruiting, a new hire can add benefit to your business, but you can never be sure exactly what you are going to get. Candidates can submit fantastic CVs and application forms and then excel at interview, but still turn out to be a bad hire. This is why it’s important to reference check job potential candidates your are looking to hire. You can learn more about potential recruits based upon correspondence with their current or former boss, or another individual who has been nominated as a reference.

Unless organisations are operating in a regulated industry, or there is a written agreement between the parties, employers are not required by law to give a reference check. But if they do, they must be accurate - whether they are positive, negative or neutral. Some candidate references will give glowing reports on job candidates, while others will simply confirm their dates of employment and the role they held. Contrary to common belief, employers are allowed to give a bad reference check too, providing they give an accurate impression of the individual in question.

Ideally, referees will provide direct answers to each reference question you ask, allowing you to form a more accurate impression of a candidate based upon a third-party view. There are times when you can read between the lines a little, but caution is advised. If a referee provides only a brief confirmation of employment, it could be because they are very busy, or because that is their company's policy.

All you can do as an employer is ask the right reference questions and see how referees respond. As you look to solidify your view of a candidate, there are certain reference questions you should always ask, that differ from asking interview questions.

Basic reference questions to ask

First of all, you need to establish that the information provided by the job candidate on their CV and application form is accurate.When carrying out a reference check, review the dates of employment, job titles and duties carefully to ensure they haven't embellished their record.

1. How long did the candidate work for your organisation?

2. What was the nature of the candidate's role at your organisation.

3. How much was the candidate paid?

4. Did they receive bonuses or overtime payments in addition to this?

5. Where was the candidate employed before joining your organisation?

Important reference questions to ask

In order to learn more about your potential hire, it may be necessary to ask some more probing questions when conducting your reference check. This can tell you about their ability to do the job you are advertising.

6. How often was the employee absent from work?

7. Did the candidate have any weaknesses?

8. How does the candidate compare to their colleagues/ their replacement?

9. What steps did the candidate take to ensure urgent tasks were delivered on time.

10. Would you rehire the candidate in future?

These reference questions are a good starting point as you look to gain a clearer understanding of the potential employee - who they are, what they can do, and how they do it. You can learn a little about their motivations, and determine whether they will be a good fit for your organisation.

There may be other questions you wish to ask, which relate specifically to the person you are considering hiring. Examples might relate to their leadership skills, their career development with their previous employer, and their personality around the office.

The more questions you ask, the more you may find out. It will be up to the referee as to how they respond, and this may depend on time constraints as well as their opinion of the candidate. But you would hope that referees would take the time to reward exceptional people - those who have added value to their organisation - by writing or providing them a superb reference check.