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Hiring Tips & Insights: How to Conduct Reference Checks Before Making an Offer
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How to Conduct Reference Checks Before Making an Offer

By Marcelle van Niekerk

Are you nearing the finish line of hiring a new team member? Then, it’s time for employment reference checks. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a daunting step in your hiring process. Here’s how we think about conducting reference checks at OfferZen — plus a list of questions to cover in your calls.

reference checks after interview

Why are reference checks important?

Conducting reference checks can help you accomplish a couple of things. Depending on the specific candidate and the role you’re hiring for, reference checks can help you:

  • Double-check the accuracy of the information you’ve received up to this point in the hiring process (for example, after an interview).
  • Uncover any issues or red flags that you potentially missed during the interview process.
  • Give you additional context that will help the hiring manager best work with the candidate once you’ve hired them.

When to conduct reference checks

Before you dial a single digit, it’s important to be clear about what you’re hoping to achieve by contacting someone’s references. For example, are you looking for extra information to make your hiring decision – or have you already decided and need to check for any potential red flags?

In general, avoid speaking to a reference before talking to the candidate yourself. It might feel useful to have a heads up before they’ve even come in for an interview, but it could bias your first impression of this person with somebody else’s opinion.

Remember that your goal isn’t to simply confirm what you’ve already learnt about someone during an interview. A useful mindset to adopt would be one of “everything we’ve heard about the candidate so far is great, but we just want to make sure that we haven’t missed anything”.

You should always respect a candidate’s privacy during their job search. Never phone somebody’s current workplace without their explicit permission, and don’t solicit your personal network for information without doing your homework.

Keep in mind that the tech world is a small place, and people can be connected in unexpected ways. Therefore, limit your reference checks to those the candidate has directly provided.

Once you have a list of references, let them know you’ll be reaching out in advance to give the referee enough time to prepare.

It’s helpful to make the intent of the reference check clear. It’s not to try and catch the candidate out, but to find out how you can best support a potential employee.

This makes a massive difference in the quality of the information you get out of the conversation.

How to conduct direct reference checks

Most of the time, the direct references offered by the candidate will be glowing. Why else would the candidate have referred them to you?

Therefore, you have to become an expert at teasing out the details.

Listen for any red flags like hesitations and intentional omissions and ask for facts instead of anecdotes. For example, exactly which parts of their team’s success were they responsible for?

Try to contact a combination of these types of references:

  • 2-3 direct references of managers/team leads that worked with the candidate
  • One reference of a direct team mate that worked with the candidate

Example questions for conducting reference checks

Having structure and consistency to your reference questions should make reference checking less time-consuming on the team.

Using the same questions for every candidate also allows you to make a fair comparison between candidates. However, add one or two custom questions should you have specific matters to discuss about a candidate.

Asking open-ended questions gives references the chance to elaborate on their answers.

Unsure what exactly to ask? Try questions from our lists:

For standard roles:

  1. In which capacity did you work with the person?
  2. What role did they fulfill when you worked together?
  3. On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you rate their overall work performance and why?
  4. How did they support and/or collaborate with co-workers?
  5. How did the candidate handle work-related stress?
  6. What were the positives and challenges of supervising/working with [candidate]?
  7. What should we do in order to enable them to do their best work?
  8. How does the candidate communicate?
  9. In what areas could they improve?
  10. Is there any area where they would need additional support in their first 90 days?
  11. Can you give me an example of a work setback or stressful challenge that they faced and tell me how they dealt with it?
  12. How do they handle constructive feedback?
  13. Could you share about a time they were involved in a conflict situation? How was it resolved, and did it affect the working relationship?
  14. Would you work with [candidate] again?

These are good standard questions for individual contributors who collaborate with the rest of your team. However, these standard questions will not address everything you need to know about a manager’s skills.

That’s why you need a new set of questions for team leads or managers that you’re hiring. These should help you assess the candidate’s skills in the following areas:

  • They’re a team player
  • They’re able to mentor junior team members
  • They’re able to set a vision for the team
  • They’re able to support or own hiring

For management roles:

  1. What role did they fulfill when you worked together?
  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you rate their overall performance as a manager?
  3. What qualities about [the candidate] make them a great leader? Any qualities that don’t?
  4. Describe the candidate’s management style and what you appreciated most.
  5. Does the candidate inspire and energise others? How?
  6. How, if so, did the candidate help you to grow and learn?
  7. Is the candidate respectful of people working under them? Provide an example.
  8. Have you seen the candidate delegate important tasks to others when appropriate?
  9. How does [the candidate] handle stress, conflict and pressure?
  10. Compared to other managers you’ve had, how would you rank [the candidate] as a manager?
  11. How does [candidate] handle constructive feedback?
  12. Would you work with [candidate] again?
  13. Lastly, is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share with me?

Download our list of questions here for easy reference.

employment reference check questions


We hope this helps you conduct this last crucial step in your hiring process — before you, hopefully, welcome your new team member on board.

Thanks to OfferZen team members Sharon Mwamanda, Adriaan Venter and
Nic Botes, who contributed to this article.

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