Conducting Reference Checks: Best Tips for Getting Meaningful Information

By Suzan Sturholm, SPHR, All Things HR, LLC.


We are often asked “what is the best way to get the most meaningful information from a candidate’s references?” Although there is no sure way to get a reference to share the good, the bad, and the ugly about a potential candidate, we thought we would share our best tips for asking questions that get the best response.


  1. Always ask for a minimum of three references from a candidate.
  2. Make clear to the candidate that you are looking for professional references. A professional reference is defined as someone who has been a manager or a supervisor and not a co-worker or friend.
  3. Ask the candidate to contact their references directly to give them a heads up that you will be calling. The candidate should ask the reference when the best time for you to call is and then relay that information to you. We find this approach speeds up the process and it serves as a professional courtesy.
  4. Remember the reference is doing you a favor and show them the utmost courtesy by asking them if it is a good time to talk or if they would prefer you call at another time. Also be mindful of their time and do not let the conversation go beyond 10 – 15 minutes.
  5. Most references speak positively about the candidates. This is why the candidate chose them to be a reference. However, there are some questions you can ask that help shed light on the candidate’s background and relationship with the reference.
    • Confirm the reference’s name and how they know the candidate. Make sure to clarify their position with the company, as well as the candidate’s. Again – you want to make sure you are speaking with a former manager or supervisor as they tend to be the most objective.
    • Make sure to ask for the dates they worked with the candidate. If there has been a large gap between the time they worked together and now, ask if they have become friends since working together. It is important to know the frame of mind from which the reference is speaking.
    • Ask the reference to describe the job duties and tasks the candidate performed under their supervision. Make sure to ask clarifying questions to ensure you have a full understanding of what the candidate did.
    • Ask on a scale of 1 to 10, how well the candidate performed their job duties and tasks. Also ask if they knew if the candidate enjoyed their work.
    • Ask if the candidate got along well with the others on the team? Did they make friends with their colleagues? Were there any issues where the candidate had any type of conflicts with others on their team? If so, what were they?
    • Ask if they ever had to discipline the candidate for any performance or behavior issues?
    • Ask if they would rehire the candidate, whether for the job they held or any other job at their company? If the answer is no, ask if they could elaborate.
    • Ask what would you say are two strengths this candidate has? And what would be two weaknesses or areas of opportunity this candidate can improve on?
    • Ask why the candidate left this position.
    • End the conversation with asking the question: Is there any reason why I should not hire this candidate?
    • Thank the reference for their time and end the call.


Additional tips to consider:

A common hurdle managers can run into is not being able to reach a reference. We suggest making three attempts to contact a reference. If you are still unable to make contact, call the candidate. Ask them to reach out to their reference again to find a good time for you to give them a call.


Some recruiters and hiring managers have started using email to contact references which is certainly appropriate. However, the challenge with email is that you do not have the ability to read the reference’s tone of voice, any pauses before answering a question, or sincerity in their responses, etc. There is no substitute to actually having a conversation with a reference. It is the best way to get as much detailed information as possible.


There are a number of companies that offer the service of conducting reference checks for their clients. These companies offer a great service that allows a company to get through reference checks quickly. References are more likely to share pertinent information with a future manager of the candidate rather than a phone representative. If you want the most detailed information about a candidate it is always best to conduct your reference checks yourself.


Finally, the question is often asked if conducting reference checks is even worth the time. Does it really give you any value and in the end – why does it matter? As a manager and employer you must conduct your due diligence to ensure you are not hiring someone who threatens the safety of your employees and customers. Studies show that most references will be honest with a potential employer should they believe hiring a certain person will bring harm in any way.


Honest and forthcoming references are hard to come by, but none the less every now and then you find out information you would have otherwise missed or over looked that can make all the difference in the world. And it was all because you decided to make that call!