Author: Rachel Mack, VP of Recruiting and Service Delivery

Mastering Reference Checks: Best Practices for HR Professionals

It’s been a little while since I’ve hired internally and I found myself this morning preparing to conduct professional references for a potential new hire. Often, I believe the reference checking process is one step in rounding out the talent acquisition process that is often overlooked or undervalued. Generally, I know that candidates are not going to provide me with references of individuals that are going to give them poor remarks – so what value IS this step in the process?

Professional reference checks are a crucial step in the candidate selection process. They provide invaluable insights into a candidate’s professional history, work ethic, and potential fit within your organization. However, conducting effective reference checks requires a strategic approach.

Start with a Clear Strategy

Before you even reach out to a candidate’s references, it’s essential to have a clear strategy in place. Understand what you want to achieve from the reference check, such as confirming a candidate’s qualifications, evaluating their cultural fit, or addressing specific concerns. Consider who will best help you in determining these questions and ask the Candidate to provide specific roles of people you believe will give the best insight into the candidate’s experiences. Is this an individual contributor role working within a team? Consider asking for a reference of a peer/someone they have previously worked with on a team. Do you need insight into his/her management style? Consider asking for someone whose work they’ve directly overseen. Asking for their direct supervisor as a reference is not always the number one priority.

Obtain Candidate Consent

Always seek the candidate’s permission to contact their references. It’s a professional courtesy and helps maintain a respectful relationship between the candidate and your organization.

Be Prepared

Thoroughly review the candidate’s resume, cover letter, and any other application materials before reaching out to their references. Familiarize yourself with the candidate’s qualifications and work history.

Ask the Right Questions

When speaking with references, it’s crucial to ask the right questions to obtain the information you need. Without targeted questions, you’re likely to come away from the reference check with information like “He’s great to work with” or “She’s a really hard worker.” It’s critical to have your questions prepared in advance to ensure that you get the information you need. Here are some of the most important questions to consider including in your reference check:

Introduction: Don’t forget to brief the Reference on the type/level of role for which you are considering the candidate to open the conversation.

A. How do you know the candidate, and in what capacity did you work together?

This question helps establish the reference’s relationship with the candidate and provides context for their feedback.

B. Can you describe the candidate’s key responsibilities in their previous role?

This question helps verify the accuracy of the candidate’s job history and responsibilities.

C. What were the candidate’s strengths and areas for improvement in their previous role?

Understanding the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses can provide valuable insights into their potential fit within your organization.

D. How did the candidate handle challenging situations or conflicts at work?

This question assesses the candidate’s problem-solving and interpersonal skills.

E. Can you comment on the candidate’s work ethic and reliability?

Evaluating a candidate’s work habits is crucial for assessing their potential performance.

F. Did the candidate meet or exceed performance expectations, and can you provide specific examples?

This question helps gauge the candidate’s overall competence and achievements.

G. Would you rehire the candidate if given the opportunity?

This is a critical question that can reveal a lot about the candidate’s suitability for your organization.

H. This role will require Candidate to XXX – do you have any experience with him/her/them performing this specific type of work?

I. Is there anything else we should know about the candidate’s work history or performance?

This open-ended question allows references to provide additional insights.

Listen Actively. During the reference check, actively listen to the reference’s responses. Pay attention to not only what is said but also the tone and context of their comments. This will help you discern any red flags or concerns.

Maintain Confidentiality

Ensure that you respect the privacy and confidentiality of both the candidate and the reference. Information obtained during the reference check should be handled discreetly and shared only with those who have a legitimate need to know.

Document the Conversation

Take detailed notes during the reference check. These notes will be invaluable when making your final hiring decision or if any issues arise down the road. Remember to keep these records in accordance with your organization’s data retention policies.


Reference checks play a pivotal role in the hiring process, helping organizations make informed decisions about potential candidates. By following best practices and asking the right questions, HR professionals can obtain valuable insights into a candidate’s professional history, qualifications, and potential fit within their organization. Ultimately, a well-executed reference check can lead to better hiring decisions and help build a more successful and productive team.

Happy Hiring!

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