To grow your small business, you’re going to need to hire new team members eventually. And while it can be exciting to bring on a new hire, there’s always some risk involved. Making impulsive hiring decisions can waste a lot of time and money, and leave you back at where you started. 

So how do you make sure you hire the right employees the first time?

Among other things, you should always perform reference checks on your candidates. There’s no better way to verify their strengths and experience than speaking to former managers and colleagues.

Reference checks are a great tool to understand candidates better and uncover red flags that might not show up in an interview.

Ensure you make the right hiring decisions every time by learning:

  • What a reference check is
  • When you should do a reference check
  • The best reference check questions.

What Is a Reference Check?

Reference checks are a common part of the interview and hiring process. During a reference check, the prospective employer (that’s you) contacts the candidate’s references to verify their education and work experience. 

Reference checks typically happen via phone call. Throughout this conversation, you’ll be able to gather more information about the candidate’s experience, strengths, and weaknesses. 

In addition to verifying the candidate’s information, a reference check’s goal is to see if the candidate is a good match for your business. 

When To Do a Reference Check

Since reference checks can take up a fair amount of time, you want to save them for the end of the hiring process. For the most part, you will only go through reference checks for candidates you consider hiring. 

So this means that reference checks usually happen after you and your team have interviewed the candidate. If you like the individual, you’ll ask for the candidate’s references. 

How to Do a Proper Reference Check

Like interviews, there is a particular protocol to use when performing reference checks. First of all, you should ask for the candidate’s consent. If they agree, you’ll get a list of references. 

In general, you want to ask to speak with a candidate’s former managers and former colleagues. In some cases, if a candidate has less experience, you may also ask for references such as college professors or counselors. 

Once you have your list of references, you will contact each person to request a scheduled time for a phone call. Try to keep these conversations brief. You should be able to get the information you need in 15-20 minutes.

Before your call, prepare the questions you want to ask. Using a standard list of reference check questions makes it easy for you to compare multiple candidates. However, depending on each candidate’s interviews, you may want to also focus on some specific topics.

During your scheduled phone call, begin by restating the context of your call. Mention who you are and briefly describe the position the candidate is applying for. 

You can provide details such as:

  • Basic job requirements
  • Technical skills required for the job
  • Whether or not the candidate will have to interact with customers
  • Results that they should achieve 

After that, you can begin with your questions. 

As always, at the end of the call, make sure to thank each reference for their time.

The Best Reference Check Questions to Ask

1. Describe Your Working Relationship With the Candidate/How You Know the Candidate

Begin your conversation by verifying the information that the candidate provided you. Start by confirming the candidate’s resume details, such as dates of employment and job title. 

Additionally, make sure you know the working relationship between the reference and your candidate. Afterward, you can tailor your questions based on the context.

By asking about the reference’s work experience with the candidate, you can properly frame the rest of the conversation.

2. Did the Candidate Achieve Any Significant Accomplishments While Working With You?

Once you have verified the candidate’s work experience, ask questions about their work ethic, productivity, and overall impact at their past organization.

It’s one thing to understand a candidate’s skills; it’s another thing to see how those skills have been applied. 

Did the candidate improve productivity, help lower costs, or increase revenue? As a business owner, you need to hire a candidate that can positively impact your bottom line.

If your reference call reveals several significant accomplishments, this is a good indicator of a strong work ethic. You can follow up on some of these accomplishments and see if the candidate achieved expected results or exceeded expectations.

3. What Are the Candidate’s Greatest Strengths?

Asking about strengths is one of the standard questions you should have asked your candidate during the interview. The reference check is an excellent opportunity to see if the candidate’s former colleagues identify similar strengths. 

If the reference’s answers align with the candidate’s, you can be sure that they have a good handle on their strengths.

Another reason to ask this question is to uncover strengths the candidate might not have known or shared. 

And finally, this question can help even the interview playing field. If a candidate is modest, they might not highlight their strengths as well as others. Checking with past colleagues can help you get a better understanding of their impact.

4. What Are the Candidate’s Greatest Weaknesses?

Like the strengths question, you’re looking to see if the candidate and their references identify similar weaknesses. Significant differences here could be a red flag.

In addition to understanding your candidate’s self-awareness level, knowing their weaknesses helps you evaluate the candidate for culture fit

It’s important to understand that each company has its own culture. What’s considered a weakness at their former workplace might be a strength at yours.

Finally, asking about weaknesses can help you learn more about the candidate’s coachability. Use follow-up questions to determine if the candidate made an effort to improve and how they reacted to mistakes.

5. What Skills Does the Candidate Need To Develop To Reach Their Full Potential?

Each team member you hire will have some sort of learning curve during their employment with you. Ideally, you hire people that you can help develop

However, you can’t assume what type of resources and development each candidate needs. This is where former managers can be a great resource. 

Someone who has worked with a candidate before has a better handle on where they need to grow. Some of your reference check questions must be forward-looking — you can get much more information that way.

Once you know the skills they need to develop, you can ask yourself if you have the resources to help this person grow and succeed. 

6. What Type of Management Does the Candidate Thrive Under?

This question is one of the most effective on this list. You want to understand what your candidate needs from their manager to judge whether you can provide it.

More than half of adults leave companies because of bad experiences with managers. It turns out that compatibility with your company’s management style is one of the most important elements of finding a true culture fit.

Think about it: if your candidate works best individually but you have a collaborative management style, there’s bound to be friction. A former manager, or even co-worker, can provide precious insights into the best management style for your candidate

If you have a good understanding of your management style, it’s appropriate to ask whether the candidate would thrive in that work environment.

7. Given the Opportunity, Would You Hire This Candidate Again?

People leave companies for plenty of reasons unrelated to job performance. Perhaps there was no room for growth or the company needed to downsize. 

But, it’s an excellent sign if past employers would want to rehire someone. 

This sentiment from a former manager can tell you whether this candidate was dependable and worked well with others. 

Now, if someone says “No,” be sure to follow up and understand why. There may be some red flags here, or perhaps there was a lack of culture fit. Either way, take some time to get to the bottom of it.

8. Would You Recommend This Candidate?

This is a standard question that sums up the purpose of your reference check. Ultimately, you want to know if former colleagues recommend your candidate as a team member. 

Asking for the recommendation typically happens at the end of the call. At this point, you should be able to guess what the other person will say. Furthermore, most candidates will only provide you with references that will recommend them. 

So, while this may seem like a formality, it’s still a critical reference check question. Pay attention to the energy behind the referral. Ideally, you want to hear that a reference would gladly recommend the candidate to anyone. 

On the other hand, it’s equally valuable to listen for qualifications. Remember, you’re assessing the candidate’s skills as well as potential culture fit with your team.

9. Is There Anyone Else You’d Recommend I Speak To?

Once again, this is a standard reference check question usually reserved for the end of the call. A previous manager might be able to point you in the direction of a former colleague that worked closely with your candidate. 

This question can be especially useful if your job opening has managerial responsibilities. In that case, it’s wise to hear from past managers and people that your candidate has managed.

Get More Information With Follow-up Questions 

By now, you might have guessed that follow-up questions are just as valuable as your standard reference check questions. 

Other people sometimes know how we work better than we would know ourselves. The same logic applies to your candidates. If you want to truly find the best fit for your team, you need to learn a bit about your candidate’s past performance, from the perspective of others.

Finding the right new hire can ensure seamless onboarding, better performance, and your new employee’s overall job satisfaction. So, if you want to reduce employee turnover, take some time to learn everything you can before making a job offer.

To find more tools to help you manage your workforce, explore Hourly’s people platform for easy time tracking and payroll management.

This article was contributed by Maddy Osman and originally posted on