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Essential questions to ask job references

February 27, 2023
4 min read

Recruiters and talent acquisition professionals know the best questions to ask candidates. But what are the best questions to ask job references?

Recruiting professionals gain invaluable information by speaking with job references. These conversations supply insights that no resume or candidate interview will ever reveal; the influence your candidate had over her teammates, a head’s up on her blindspots, or the reason why she missed out on a big promotion.

To elicit this kind of perspective, recruiters should conduct their conversations with job references thoughtfully and intentionally. Consider these conversations as having four steps. By taking each step, you not only gather important information about your applicant, you build rapport as get to the bigger, more revealing questions.

Here, we walk you through these four steps and suggest several questions to ask at every stage.

Read iCIMS’ Guide to Hiring Talent to learn how you can build a best-in-class approach to hiring.


Step #1: Get comfortable

When speaking with job references, recruiters can’t just cut to the chase. They need to use the early part of their conversations to confirm a few details, set the tone and establish trust.

The best way to do this? When brainstorming questions to ask job references, remember your manners. Ask how the person’s week is going and thank them for taking the time to speak with you. These talking points aren’t simple formalities — they lay the groundwork for you to ask bigger, harder questions later on.

Questions to ask:

  • How are you? How’s your week going?
  • When did you work with this candidate?
  • Are the job title and job description I have accurate?
  • Tell me about your relationship with this candidate.


Step #2: Assess strengths

Don’t stop with the basics. Remember, your goal is to glean as much as you can about what it’s like to work with the candidate in question. Start with the good stuff: Ask the reference to talk about areas where the candidate excels. If the answer isn’t illuminating, try a different angle. Jog her memory by prompting her to recall specific projects she worked on with the candidate.

Behavioral questions help recruiters dig deeper into candidates’ skills. While these questions will vary according to the job, they all work toward the same goal: Revealing how the candidate works. If you want to know if a candidate gets along well with her teammates, ask the reference how she was able to collaborate with her peers. If you want to gauge her level-headedness, ask how she handled angry customers or frustrating coworkers.

Questions to ask:

  • Tell me about some wins from your time together.
  • What is this candidate good at?
  • What kind of work environment motivates this person?


Step #3: Prod at potential problems

Next, ask about a candidate’s weaknesses. If you don’t, you not only risk making a bad hire, you also shortchange the candidate. When you understand a candidate’s weaknesses, you’re able to anticipate them in onboarding and beyond.

A job reference may struggle to discuss the candidate’s weak points. If this is the case, prompt her to consider an applicant’s soft skills, from professionalism to interpersonal relatability. Such insights will show whether the person is a good fit for the role, the team and the organization.

Of course, these queries can be hard to get to in a 15-minute phone call. Tools like iCIMS SkillSurvey automate this process by delivering feedback from references in a much quicker and more candid way.

Questions to ask:

  • Were there any problem areas you were working on with this person?
  • Where did this person need support?


Step #4: Open it up

Once you’ve established key details, talked over a candidate’s strengths and asked about her weaknesses, it’s time to give the reins to the job reference. Ask for her opinion: Would she rehire this applicant? In all honesty, what does she think?

To end the call, ask the reference if there’s anything she wants to discuss that you didn’t ask about. This question blows the conversation wide open, inviting the reference to mention an important tidbit you might not have discovered otherwise. If the reference has nothing new to mention, she may circle back to the point she found the most important — that she heartily recommends the candidate, or that she’s just not sure this would be the right fit.

Questions to ask:

  • Would you rehire this candidate?
  • Who else should I speak to?
  • Is there anything else you want to say?


Final thoughts

Conversations that follow these four steps will illuminate insights that can save your organization from nightmare hires. But in today’s job market, many hiring teams simply lack the time and resources to pick up the phone and make these essential calls. That’s why talent professionals are turning to skills verification software like iCIMS SkillSurvey that automates reference checking.

As you improve your reference checking process, consider how you can smooth out other parts of recruiting. Read iCIMS’ Guide to Hiring Talent to learn how you can build a best-in-class approach to hiring.

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About the author

Alex Oliver

Alex is well-versed in content and digital marketing. He blends a passion for sharp, persuasive copy with creating intuitive user experiences on the web. A natural storyteller, Alex highlights customer successes and amplifies their best practices.

Alex earned his bachelor’s degree at Fairleigh Dickinson University before pursuing his master’s at Montclair State University. When not at work, Alex enjoys hiking, studying history and homebrewing beer.

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