For most employers, deciding to make a reference call comes after their minds are already set (more or less) on making an offer. This may explain why many of us see reference calls mostly as an annoyance — if your mind is already made up, what’s the point?
It doesn’t have to be this way. A reference call can inform your decision, not confirm it, and it can make the whole hiring process much smarter. With a few pointed questions and a solid set of goals, you’ll be able to find out what kind of employee your candidate will be and if they’re a fit for your operation.
What kind of references should you request?
Reference calls are a perfect opportunity to find out how employees work with a range of people. I always like to ask for references from former managers but also from colleagues at a peer level. As an employer, you’re not just looking to hire someone you’ll get along with—you want to consider group dynamics to protect your current employees when you bring in a new team member. Some tips:
- Ask for at least two references, and three are ideal
- Get specific — ask your applicants to provide one supervisor, one coworker/professional peer, and one personal reference
Note: Early career applicants or applicants making a career change likely won’t have someone who can speak to the specifics of your field — and that’s okay! Listen for transferable skills and assets beyond the technical, like communication, leadership, and creative thinking.
What’s the point of making reference calls?
If you can’t answer this question, it means you haven’t (yet!) set goals. Go into every call with intention — and a clear list of items to discover:
- What is this employee like to work with?
- How are they to manage?
- How would they fit in with your team?
You can also use a reference call to drill down into any questions or reservations you might have about the applicant. Concerned they don’t have enough leadership experience? That’s a great conversation to have with their former manager. Wondering how they’ll pair with a slightly high-maintenance colleague? A peer will have tons of insight.
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20 Better Questions to Ask References
Let’s get into specific questions. I’ve broken them down by reference type, but these categories are flexible, and both former managers and peers will have critical opinions.
Reference questions to ask former bosses
- Tell me about this person’s ability to build relationships with peers, management, or customers.
- How open is this person to change and/or ambiguity? Can you tell me about a time they showed flexibility?
- What type of environment do you think this person will most likely thrive in?
- If this person was the trainer in your company, what subject/course would they be best at teaching? And which course would you not have them teach?
- What are this employee’s weaknesses that they aren’t really aware of? What’s the best way to support them toward awareness and improvement?
- How does this employee like to be managed? What advice do you have for their future manager?
- What is unique about this employee?
- How could this employee improve their performance? Can you tell me about an area of performance that they did improve upon and how they did it?
- How does this person show up for meetings? Are they present and engaged?
- Did they meet the goals and expectations for their position? What goals and expectations did they usually miss?
Questions to ask former colleagues or peers
- How did you work with this employee? Were you close colleagues or distant members of a big team?
- Could you rely on this employee to help you when you were overwhelmed?
- Was this employee able to ask for help or support when they needed it?
- How does this employee handle stress?
- Did you feel like you and this employee were in it together? How did they demonstrate camaraderie?
- Tell me about a time the two of you resolved a conflict.
- Would you work with this employee again?
- What did you learn from this employee?
- How do they set boundaries between their professional and personal lives?
- What’s their top weakness, and how do you think they could improve?
Reference calls don’t have to be perfunctory. Instead, they can give you invaluable insight. You can get a holistic picture of the applicant, which sets you up to make an informed hiring decision — one that will benefit your company and give your team a new coworker they’ll love working with.