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The Best Reference Check Questions to Ask

Reference checks are vital to the hiring process, as is making the most of any reference. Bad questions can cause confusion, complicate the process, and start you and your candidate off on the wrong foot. Asking the right questions has the opposite effect. An essential part of the hiring process is knowing the right questions to ask regarding legal limitations, best practices, and questions that benefit your organization. 

There are two ways to figure out the perfect reference check questions. You can spend years on trial and error while missing countless quality candidates. Or, you can check out this quick read from KarmaCheck about everything you need to know. We recommend the latter. 

Why Are Reference Checks Important?

Reference checks allow you to gauge a candidate’s character and work ethic – two things that a resume can’t. In a world of computer-generated text and 3rd party services, even a less-than-stellar candidate can have a perfectly crafted resume. That’s why reference checks are so necessary. They fill in the gaps between what’s on a resume and how workers perform their tasks. Asking appropriate reference check questions can alert you to red flags that may put your organization at risk. For example, reference checks can reveal if a person is prone to workplace toxicity, cutting corners on processes, or being late.

Best Practices

Here are a few best practices you can implement today. 

Structure the Reference Process: Structuring the process means figuring out and planning the order of questions. Companies with interview teams should decide who will talk and when, and which questions they will ask to avoid being repetitive and to present a unified front.

Collect as Many References as Possible: A good reference checklist ranges from 3-5 references – the more, the better. Pay special attention to recurring statements. For example, do most references mention that the candidate is punctual? Then you can reasonably assume they’ll also be punctual in their new role. 

Ask Open Ended Questions: The reference process is your chance to get to know the candidate. Get the best results by allowing the reference to discuss your candidate at length. You can do this by asking open-ended questions.

Stay on Topic: Don’t get distracted by the reference’s charm. Instead, keep the interview on the job. And only ask a few questions, if any, about your candidate’s private life. The point of the call is to get a professional review, not collect gossip. 

Consent: Get consent from a candidate before conducting a reference check. That means if you need an additional reference for any reason, it’s better to have the candidate submit one rather than pick one from their resume. Consent for reference checks is optional, but it should be your standard operating procedure, as doing so improves the candidate experience and helps your company keep everything above board.

Reference Check Questions You Can't Ask

Due to fair hiring practices, you can’t ask references or candidates about their gender, sexual preference, or religion. Employers shouldn’t ask references of candidates for their medical history or criminal background, as some states have Fair Chance Hiring laws that prevent these questions to limit employer bias. And lastly, asking about familial status, such as marriage, children, etc., is prohibited. And while not banned, you shouldn’t ask their age to help avoid claims of age-based hiring. 

As a hiring manager, all your reference check questions should focus on the job. Refer to the best practice tip of staying on topic.

Typical Reference Check Questions

The point of reference check questions is to bridge the gap between a candidate’s resume and their actual performance. With that in mind, the hiring manager should focus on establishing how long a reference and a candidate worked together, how often their roles interacted, and what contributions the candidate brought to the team overall. Remember that these questions should focus less on the results of a project and more on how the candidate furthered the project itself. Here are a few good reference check questions to get you started.

Work Ethic & Experience Related Questions

These are the best reference check questions to uncover work ethic and experience.

  • How often was the candidate tasked with complex projects, and how did they respond?
  • Was the candidate considered a team player, and why? If they weren’t considered team players, please explain why not.
  • What expertise did the candidate provide to the team?
  • Can you provide an example where the candidate provided unique insight?
  • Can you provide an example where the candidate followed complex directions?
  • Can you provide an example where the candidate went above and beyond to complete a task?
  • What could the candidate do better to support the team regularly?
  • How long did the candidate work at the company, and why did they leave?
  • Would you work with the candidate again, and if so, why?
Character Reference Check Questions

Here are a few good reference check questions that help you establish character.

  • Would you trust the candidate with sensitive information, and if so, why?
  • Do you feel the candidate often contributed to workplace drama, and if so, why?
  • What are a few reasons you would or wouldn’t hire the candidate for this role?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s personality as it applies to the workforce?
  • Would you trust the candidate to work with little to no oversight, and if so, why?
  • Are you concerned about the candidate passing off others’ work as their own? 
  • What was a defining moment that displayed the candidate’s character to you?


Good reference check questions are only part of the equation. Finding your ideal candidate requires in-depth background checks, adherence to hiring practices, and a streamlined and professional hiring process. Thankfully, KarmaCheck’s Background check API and customer service team can help. Let us do the heavy lifting so you can be more productive in your role. Learn your options by reaching out to us today. 


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