Checking references

Checking references carefully and thoroughly is one way to avoid hiring the wrong person. Reference checks are a last opportunity to verify the information the candidate has provided, confirm their suitability, and explore any areas of concern. Talk to references before you make an offer.

It may seem easier to accept letters of recommendation that address a candidate’s abilities and experience. However, talking to people will allow you to probe issues deeply enough to get a fuller sense of the candidate’s values, nature, approach to work, and how they interact with others.

Speaking to references over the phone is the best way to get more depth about the candidate’s character and background.

Prepare a list of consistent questions for references. Ask about the information on the candidate’s resume and the topics discussed during the interview. Ask for insights into the candidate’s character, examples of relevant work, and areas needing development.

The following sample questions suggest the types of information you might seek from references about potential job candidates. These questions are examples. You will want to identify areas and abilities that are critical to the position that you are trying to staff.

Consult applicable legislation to ensure you are asking questions that respect individual privacy and human rights.

Background questions

  • How long have you known [Candidate Name]?
  • What was your relationship with [Candidate Name]?
  • When did you work with [Candidate Name] and for how long?

Validating interview or resume information

  • What were [Candidate Name]’s responsibilities at your organization? What type of projects was [Candidate Name] involved with?
  • How did [Candidate Name] contribute to the projects?

Focusing on the candidate’s competencies

  • How did [Candidate Name] interact with co-workers?
  • Can you give an example of [Candidate Name]’s ability to take initiative? Can you provide an example of a time that [Candidate Name] was required to use strategic thinking skills?
  • What are three of [Candidate Name]’s strengths?
  • In what areas do you feel [Candidate Name] may need further development?
  • Please rank, on a scale of one to ten, the following abilities:
    • Writing skills
    • Verbal presentations
    • Professionalism
    • Ability to work with others
    • Leadership qualities
  • Ability to work under pressure or respond to competing deadlines
  • Conflict resolution skills

Assessing personal suitability

  • Why did [Candidate Name] leave your organization?
  • If you had the option would you hire [Candidate Name] again?
  • Is there anything else we should know before we make a hiring decision?

Record the reference’s responses. Remember that any notes that you take when talking to a reference must comply with human rights legislation. Potential candidates may have the right to see what references have said about them, so keep accurate notes.

At the beginning of your conversation with the reference, explain the importance of the position to them and tell them you appreciate their honesty. Thank them for their help and the time they have spent with you at the end of the conversation.


It is important to inform candidates that you will be checking their references and to receive their consent to move forward.

You should speak with at least two or three professional references of your selected candidate. Speaking with at least one current or previous supervisor is also suggested.

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