Hiring and Growth

The Best Questions to Ask a Reference

Patrick Stafford Professional business writer 
Best Reference Check Questions to Ask

So your candidate answered all the right questions. The team loves them, you love them, and you’re ready to sign on the dotted line.

Hold up. Now comes the reference check.

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Addy Roberts is a Recruiting Lead at Gusto, and has conducted hundreds of reference checks throughout her career. And according to Roberts, “they’re the most underutilized part of the interview process.”

Not only are you calling people who are extremely busy (especially as you hire for more senior employees), but the calls themselves can eat hours out of your day.

So, how should you go about conducting a reference check that’s truly useful?

A step-by-step guide to nailing the reference check

We chatted with Roberts to hear about her favorite reference check questions—along with step-by-step advice on how business owners can make the most of these essential calls.

Step #1. Tell your candidate exactly who you want to talk to

Give your candidate guidance on the references you’d like to chat with, instead of having them select a random group of people.

“This will ensure that you’re spending your time wisely and chatting with people who can give you the perspective you need to make an educated hiring decision,” advises Roberts.

Step #2. Call the reference, and make it clear what you want out of the chat

Say who you are, and why you’re calling. (You know, like how a phone call usually works.)

Don’t rush the call, and make it clear you want to have a full conversation with the person on the other end.

Then, tell the reference where your candidate is in the interview process. Roberts says this helps them understand why you’re taking up their time to connect. Here’s some language you can use:

Hi [Name of reference]. Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to chat. We’ve been talking to [Your candidate] over the past few weeks and are at the final stages of the process, which is why I’m interested in talking to people who have worked with them. You worked closely together, is that right?

Focus on that last question. You want to make sure the reference worked close enough with the candidate to give quality feedback. Follow up on that, too.

Could you tell me a little about how you two worked together and what your working relationship was like, and so on?

This will give you enough information to make sure they’re in a position to actually be a good reference. Sometimes, candidates will write down people they’re friends with, but haven’t actually worked alongside. You want to weed those references out quickly.

“This is exactly why it’s important to be specific with the candidate about who you’d like to chat with,” says Roberts. “Then they’ll provide you with references who can share relevant information and context.”

Step #3: Get specific about the role

Next, tell the reference about the role. Talk a little about the responsibilities involved, and what type of output you would expect.

You should also describe specific skills they might need to have, especially technical skills and software programs they should know.

Then, ask:

Based on what I’ve just described, do you think [Your candidate] would be a good fit here?

Listen carefully! By definition, references are picked by a candidate to give a positive response. Your job is to see if they hedge their bets on any one particular area.

It’s not always a completely negative thing, either. A reference might say, “Matt was really great at X, but we didn’t really do much of Y.”

That’s great! That gives you information to work from. And you know the reference is likely being truthful because they’ve been honest about their inability to give a full reference on all the areas you wanted details on.

Step #4. Ask questions about what you’re looking for

No one likes this question: “What’s Matt like to work with?”

Instead, focus on tighter questions, especially ones that build on the anecdotes your candidate provided. For example:

  • Tell me about Matt’s experience with his direct reports. What kind of relationships did he have with them?
  • Tell me about Matt’s managerial style. Was he able to get people excited around a common goal?
  • Matt doesn’t really have a lot of experience with X. How do you think he’d navigate this type of role?
  • Would you consider hiring Matt again? Why?
  • What are some of Matt’s most impressive skills, that might not be listed on his resume?

Notice how none of these are “yes” or “no” questions. You want to make sure your questions give the reference an opportunity to speak at length, to give you more information.

Don’t call a reference and ask if your candidate was telling the truth. Instead, try to piece together the story from multiple references.

For example, for any candidate applying for a managerial or leadership position at Gusto, Roberts recommends conducting a 360-degree reference.

That means she speaks to a candidate’s former manager, peer, and a direct report or mentee. “This 360-degree view gives you a complete picture of how the candidate interacts with different types of stakeholders within a business.”

Step #5: Then zoom out

Too often, interviewers focus on the big, technical questions. It’s important to throw in some questions about your candidate’s motivations, time management, and so on.

For instance, you could ask things like:

  • What motivates Matt?
  • What advice would you give Matt’s future manager to set Matt up for success?

“These questions help you understand how to effectively onboard and empower your employee once they join,” says Roberts. “These are go-to questions for me. The responses you get are very insightful and give me a deeper perspective on a candidate’s motivations and working style.”

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Step #6: Turn the reference into an advocate

“Be transparent about the role, but also take the opportunity to market your position and company,” says Roberts.

“References tend to be former managers and mentors, and they’re generally people that the candidate trusts. If these key people think your position and company is exciting they can also help encourage the candidate to join,” Roberts says.

“The reference will likely follow up with the candidate and say, ‘I talked to your future manager today, and they sounded great. I hope you get the job.’”

Reference check red flags!

So much of these conversations are subjective. However, Roberts recommends to keep an eye (or ear) out for these red flags:

  • References who didn’t know they were references. “If the reference is surprised to hear from you, that is a flag in my book,” says Roberts. “The candidate should give their reference a head’s up that you’ll be contacting them before handing out their contact information.”
  • References who don’t give you any specifics. Not only does this mean they didn’t work closely enough with the candidate (and that brings the candidate’s judgment into question for choosing them as a reference), but it might be worse. They might have negative experiences with the candidate and don’t want to share them, because it doesn’t feel great to prevent a person from getting a job.
  • First-hand accounts that differ from the candidate’s. Any inconsistencies are obviously a red flag, since you don’t have much to go off.
  • References that are too positive. No one can be overwhelmingly amazing with no flaws. Watch out for references that lean too far in this direction, because it shows that the reference may not have enough context.

Remember, you can always ask the reference if there is anyone else you should speak with. The more context you get for the candidate, the better.


Interviewing is intense, and checking references can be too—if you’re doing it properly, that is.

But remember, as a business owner hiring employees, you probably trusted your gut at least a few times along the way.

Don’t abandon it now.

Updated: November 1, 2019

Patrick Stafford
Patrick Stafford Patrick is a professional writer with experience in journalism, business, and design. His business produces copy and content for businesses ranging from startups to the world's largest firms, all around the globe.

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