The 5 Most Revealing Approaches to Reference Checks

Reference checks are an effective means of painting a more complete picture of a candidate you’re considering for a role. Not only do checks help you confirm a candidate’s background, but they also can help you objectively assess an individual’s work ethic and values.

Even if an employee’s previous place of work was not the right fit, a reference check can fill in the blanks on how the candidate’s background has shaped and prepared them for your organization.

To make sure all your bases are covered, here are the most revealing areas to explore when conducting reference checks.


1 – Character and Values

The question: When the employee left, what quality did you miss the most about him or her? How did this person compare with others who had previously done the same job?

What it reveals: This question will help determine what a candidate can bring to the table beyond the boilerplate job description. The answer separates those who do what’s expected of them, and those who exceed those expectations.


The question: How did the candidate get along with peers and management? How do you think they saw themselves fitting into the organization?

What it reveals: The day-to-day reality of workplace relationships can make or break a healthy office culture. It’s important to know what sort of personality you’re introducing to the mix.


The question: Did the employee step up to help out other employees in times of need? Did they seem interested in contributing to a collective sense of success? Did they share in other people’s success?

What it reveals: Team players who treat other employees’ success as their own, rather than a threat to their self-interest, are who you want on your side. They’ll be the glue that holds the organization together.


2 – Accomplishments and Praise

The question: What was the top skill this person brought to the team and how was it observed in action?

What it reveals: Somewhat surprisingly, it can be difficult for candidates to accurately gauge their top strengths. A reference’s perspective can highlight the praise that a candidate may not know how to provide for themselves during the interview.


The question: If there had been an opportunity, would this employee have been promoted?

What it reveals: Oftentimes, a lack of a promotion is more of a reflection of organizational structure than a determining factor of a candidate’s potential. This is a useful hypothetical to explore when evaluating a candidate’s possible career trajectory.


The question: Based on the performance review process in your organization, was the employee given favourable reviews? If they were given areas to improve on, did they step up to the challenge?

What it reveals: Some employees consider reviews to be unpleasant and tedious recaps of their least impressive moments. But an employee who welcomes feedback and strives to improve is indispensable.


3 – Learning from Mistakes

The question: In the presence of conflict, how did the former employee handle it? Did they communicate effectively to resolve it?

What it reveals: Conflict avoidant people can harbor resentment over time, leading to larger and more complex issues down the road. Did the employee face conflict head on with a problem solving attitude? An employee who views conflict as an opportunity to strengthen procedures and find common ground despite interpersonal differences is the type of teammate you can count on.


The question:  At your organization, was the employee in a stressful and deadline driven role? If yes, what responses did you observe to stress? Did this person value and meet deadlines?

What it reveals: Did the employee maintain a calm, focused demeanor, or did their stress have an impact on other people? It’s important to know how an employee behaves in times of crisis.


The question: Was there ever a time this employee made a serious mistake or misjudgment? Did they own up to this mistake? What sorts of steps did they take to undo the damage, and were you able to maintain your trust in them moving forward?

What it reveals: We’ve all made mistakes at work that can seem disastrous. But it’s not necessarily the mistake itself that causes the damage, but the employee’s response. Accountability, humility, and a willingness to grow and learn are all valuable traits that can make up for most mistakes or failures in the long run.


4 – Personal Boundaries and Work Ethic

The question Did the employee manage their time well, meaning did they make sure they valued their time outside of work as well?

What it reveals We all like to see employees who give their workday that extra push, arriving early and leaving late. But weak personal boundaries can lead to employee burnout, and fast. Do they seem like they take care of themselves, and come back to work the next day happy and recharged?


The question: Did the employee maintain healthy personal boundaries among peers and managers? Did they refrain from participating in office gossip, or oversharing personal details?

What it reveals: Regardless of how close or tight-knit your organization’s culture is, it’s important to know that your candidate doesn’t have a tendency to make others uncomfortable.


The question: One of the main tasks in this role to which this candidate has applied and is being considered for is ___________. From your experience, how do you think he or she will do it?

What it reveals: This question can be especially useful if an employee is searching for a shift in roles and responsibilities. If they weren’t a perfect fit in their last role, their reference can provide some insight on how they could do better in the next one.


5 – Leadership Styles and Initiative

The question Did you find that the employee knew when to say no, or to speak up when his or her plate was too full? Was the employee good at redistributing work in such a way that guaranteed it would get done on time, rather than setting themselves up for missed deadlines?

What it reveals: It’s crucial that an employee knows their limits, and does not try to cover them up out of fear of appearing incompetent. It demonstrates a rational sense of self-awareness that ultimately benefits the whole.


The question: What management or leadership style produced the best outcome with this employee? Did they follow direction well?

What it reveals: It’s good to gain some insight on what style of leadership is the best fit for the candidate you’re considering, and whether that’s the kind of leadership that your organization likes to provide.


The question: Did you feel that the employee demonstrated effective initiative when left to their own devices? Did they require more guidance, or a hands-off approach?

What it reveals: If the candidate you’re considering is likely to be working somewhat independently, a reference check can determine how much involvement is needed in an employee’s working process.