Woman on the phone performing candidate reference checks.

You’re almost ready to send out that offer letter. You’ve just got one very important task left before making a hiring decision…reference checks. Not sure where to start? Begin by letting the reference know that you’d like to discuss the candidate’s strengths, past challenges in their role, and coachability.  Let them know that the conversation will be brief – only about 10 minutes.

We believe that there is an art to doing reference checks – especially if you’re looking to glean valuable insights regarding your candidate. Note that some references may feel a bit reserved giving out personal information. It’s your job to take their guard down and approach this as a friendly and open conversation about someone you both know.

Next, as a guide to help you conduct your reference checks, we suggest focusing on these 4 categories:

  • Strengths
  • Challenges in their role
  • Coachability
  • Hire again

Let’s break down each point of focus a bit more:


The best way to frame this question is to ask it in an open-ended way. For example, you may say, “In your experience, what would you say [candidate’s name]’s strengths were as you worked together?”

If you only obtain a short, non-descriptive response, ask them to elaborate. Request information about specific instances or situations. You could say, “Give me an example of a time that happened.”

This question gives the reference the opportunity to tell a potential employer the best parts of working with this candidate. And by asking about strengths first, it gradually engages the reference in preparation for discussing something a little more difficult…challenges.

Challenges in Role

Notice that we don’t suggest asking for the candidate’s “weaknesses.” We’re all human and we know that the “weaknesses” question is one of the toughest for references to answer without feeling guarded or pressured.

Instead, frame this as an opportunity for the reference to help you.  We suggest asking specifically about any challenges the candidate had in their role while they worked with the reference.

Again, if you find it difficult to get real answers to your questions, keep asking the reference to elaborate and give you specific examples. We find that a good rule is to gain 3 important insights within each section of your reference check guide.

Advice for Coaching/Managing

Using what you’ve learned about the candidate’s challenges in their role working with the reference, ask them for their help. Say, “I’d love your help. What advice can you give me for coaching or managing [candidate’s name]?”

This can be an important step in gaining more information about how the candidate works with teams, management, and individually. It also gives insights into the candidate’s processes and more detail about areas they may find challenging.

Hire Again

Here’s a question that shouldn’t be overlooked. The way the reference answers this question is extremely telling. Even if the words are polite, their response may give you the depth and quality of information you’re looking for during your reference checks.

Try asking the question this way: “If you had the opportunity to work with [candidate’s name] again in the same capacity, would you?” Or, depending on how the reference answered questions in the above categories, you could ask something like, “Would you hire this candidate for the same job or for a different job?” And, as always, ask them to tell you more about that.

Wrap-Up the Call

Near the end of your conversation, give the reference an opportunity to add anything they’d like to say about the candidate. Depending on their response, you may want to ask a few more questions. Once it’s time to wrap-up the call, always thank the reference for taking time out of their day to speak with you.

Remember, reference checks should never use a black and white format that simply checks the boxes on your sheet. Each conversation you have with a reference should be guided by your discussion with them – no two reference checks should follow exactly alike.

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Celarity is an award-winning Staffing & Recruiting agency for Marketing, Creative & Digital talent with a mission: Creating happy careers with meaningful connections. For 30 years we have proudly connected 600+ companies with over 5,000 candidates.


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