Before you sign a contract with a third-party logistics provider or even with a new cleaning service, you probably ask for some case studies, read reviews online, or at least check their Better Business Bureau rating. Even when choosing a lunch spot for that important meeting with your soon-to-be big account, I’m willing to bet you tap Yelp to see how many stars it has and read a review or two to make sure the place isn’t too loud.

Why, then, wouldn’t you take the time to reference check before hiring new employees?

Any time you hire a new employee, you gain an opportunity and a risk. They could end up being your best team member, making a huge difference at your company…or they could be a bad hire that costs you time, money, and morale. Before you take the leap and extend an offer, asking the right reference check questions can help you make an educated decision. Follow this formula:

  • Get context
  • Verify facts
  • Give context
  • Uncover red flags
  • Assess fit

Gain Context and Verify Facts: Questions to Ask References First

questions to ask a reference for a new employee

Let’s say you’re about to hire Jane, but you’re wise and decide to call her references before extending an offer. After exchanging greetings with the reference and explaining why you’re calling, start with the following introductory questions to gain valuable context:

  • How do you know Jane?
  • In what capacity did you work with Jane?
  • How long did you work with Jane?

These questions should help you determine how heavily to weigh each reference’s answers in your hiring decision. Once you understand the person’s relationship to Jane, you can decide whether it makes sense to ask them to verify these important facts: dates of employment, job title(s), responsibilities, why Jane left (if applicable), and if Jane is eligible for rehire at that employer.

The aim here is to ensure that Jane has been truthful, but don’t just stop there. Head to the next section to uncover whether her references’ perceptions of Jane line up with her own ideas about her performance, strengths, and weaknesses.

Pro Tip: Depending on the circumstances, and the reference’s relationship to your candidate, they may not have all the answers you need. If none of your candidate’s references can verify facts such as tenure and job responsibilities, you can usually call past employers’ main lines or HR departments to do so.

Reference Check Questions

Assess Aptitude, Skills, and Fit: Five Types of Reference Check Questions

You can make a more informed hiring decision by asking the five types of reference check questions below. Insights from people who have worked with Jane can help you decide whether to hire her, better understand how to manage her, and plan for her first months on the job. Listen not only for red flags, but also for valuable nuggets on how to play to her strengths and plan for her weaknesses.

Offer Context (question 1)

Before you jump in, give the person some context about what you’re looking for by asking them the following question. This will set them up to answer the rest of your questions with a full understanding of what you need:

  • I’m considering Jane for [job title]. She’d be responsible for [responsibilities]. Do you think she could perform well in this role, and why or why not?

Gain an Understanding of Strengths and Weaknesses (questions 2-3)

Next, ask about her strengths and weaknesses. You probably asked Jane these same questions, but it can be hard to give an honest answer about yourself. You’ll benefit by getting an outside perspective on Jane, especially from people who have worked with her.

When listening to the answers, keep in mind that most people have a few weaknesses. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hire them. Knowing Jane’s weaknesses ahead of time can give you ideas about how to best help her develop. And asking about Jane’s strengths can help you understand the immediate impact she could make, so you can plan what you’d like her to tackle during her first months on the job:

  • What are Jane’s weaknesses, and do you feel she could overcome them with adequate training?
  • What are Jane’s strengths and how did she use them?

Uncover Red Flags and Discover Whether the Candidate Will Be a Good Fit (questions 4-10)

This next set of questions can help you discover whether there are reasons not to hire Jane. And even if there aren’t any red flags, the references’ answers can help you prepare for how best to manage Jane and decide whether she’ll work well with your existing team and thrive in your office culture:

  • How did Jane handle challenges, whether pressure to meet a deadline, stress with a tough goal, or conflict with colleagues?
  • Could you describe Jane’s working style? What’s it like to work with her?
  • How well did Jane work with others?
  • Did Jane have any issues with colleagues and/or management?
  • Do you have any advice for how to manage Jane?
  • Did Jane prefer to work on her own or as part of a team?
  • What role did Jane take on when part of a team? (for example, leader, encourager, organizer, planner?)

Determine Potential for Future Growth (questions 11-12)

If you are looking to hire someone who can not only help your company grow but also grow with your company and take on more responsibility, then consider asking the following:

  • Would Jane make a good manager? Why or why not?
  • Was Jane promoted or given additional responsibilities at any point? Why or why not?

Ask Closing Questions (questions 13-15)

questions to ask references for new hire

Give the reference one more chance to add anything that you should know but didn’t ask:

  • If you could work with Jane again, would you want to?
  • Is there anything else I should know about Jane that would help me make this hiring decision?
  • Can you think of anyone else I should speak to?

Pro Tip: Keep in mind that Jane’s references may have busy schedules, so after you give them the introductory context about your open position, plan to ask them the most important questions first, based on your priorities for the role and any concerns you may have.

You may think that doing a reference check isn’t a great use of your time, especially if you’re busy. After all, who is going to give you the number for someone who might give them a bad reference? But the right references can provide a wealth of knowledge about everything from your next hire’s working style, to their potential for growth, so make the time to call them.

The knowledge you gain could not only save you from making a bad hire, but also help you better plan to welcome a talented new team member. Employees are an investment, so plan to make the most of them — from their very first day!