The best questions to ask when checking references

zinc logo icon
Zinc Team
July 2, 2019
Updated on:

The reference check has long been part of the hiring process, and the questions you ask your candidate's referees can drastically affect how useful your reference checks are.

Due to anti-discrimination and data protection laws like GDPR, thequestions you ask are crucial to ensuring that your reference checks are not only legally compliant but that they also give you useful information that can inform your hiring decisions. Sometimes, you may want information on topics such as whether the candidate has past criminal behaviour or undesirable financial reliability, but the reference check may not be the best way to probe these subjects. For information like this other may be more appropriate for your hiring needs.

In this article we reveal the best reference check questions to ask, which topics to avoid and why.

The current state of referencing

Due to the potential for liability, it’s common for references to cover only the basics—job title, work dates and responsibilities—and not give any qualitative information. Referencing in this way doesn’t give you much information beyond confirming what the candidate has already told you on their CV and in the interview. More often than not, this means the reference check ends up being an exercise in compliance rather than adding information to your hiring decisions.

It’s also common for a conditional offer to be made subject to a satisfactory reference check. This also carries a certain amount of risk: if an offer has to be withdrawn after the reference check, it’s clear that the reference has had a negative impact. If the reference contains anything potentially discriminatory, the candidate could have grounds to legally challenge the withdrawal of the offer.

Today, referencing has evolved in terms of automation and data practices. Reference checks no longer have to be solely compliance activities. Forward-thinking companies are seeing the benefits in collecting broad, qualitative information about candidates that allow their new hires to hit the ground running.

What are the best questions to ask when checking references?

When checking references, the safest bet is to stick to questions focused on the candidate’s skills, values, experience, work styles and motivators. This way you lower the risk of eliciting potentially discriminatory information.

The first thing you need to do is to ensure you get through to the right person who can give the most relevant answers to your questions. Look through the candidate’s recent work history and ask specifically for referees from their most relevant positions. Ask your candidate for the referees’ contact details such as a direct phone number or their work email address. Tell them specifically that you don’t want to speak to HR so you can ask more specific questions about your candidate’s capabilities.

Secondly, you need to decide when you want to check your candidates’ references. Zinc has found that the stage you do this in your hiring process affects whether the reference is most useful for assessment or for onboarding. If you want to reference once an offer has been made, then we believe it is most useful to collect information to personalise onboarding. If you want to use the reference check as part of the assessment or screening of candidates, we recommend you reference before making a job offer.

Questions to ask for assessment

If you want to reference for assessment or screening, for example to verify a candidate’s skills, experience or ability, we recommend you reference before you make a job offer to a candidate. This way, the references can help you make a decision between candidates. Referencing for assessment at this stage means you can filter out candidates who interview well, but in reality won’t perform so well over a longer period of time within the role. Referencing earlier in the hiring process reduces the risk of making a conditional offer only to withdraw it if the references are not satisfactory.

These are some useful assessment questions to ask during your reference check:

  • Name 3 environments you believe they'd excel in.
  • Name 3 attributes that best describe their work ethic.
  • Did they ever change position in the company?
  • What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • How did they get along with peers, clients and managers?

Questions to ask for onboarding

If you want to reference after you have made an offer, we recommend you focus on onboarding when you reference. Positive onboarding experiences lead to better rates of retention and accelerate new joiners to success. When reference checks are made post-offer, this can be a key opportunity to speak to past managers and co-workers to get deep insights into how an employee works, what motivates them and how to ensure they prosper in your company.

The following questions are the best to ask to inform your onboarding and ensure your candidate flourishes:

  • What type of work environment will they thrive in?
  • What will make them apply themselves in a role?
  • What incentives will drive them?
  • What motivates them?
  • What management styles will they work best under?
  • Which work styles do they prefer?

Referencing for compliance

If you only want to reference for compliance reasons, you most likely will simply need to verify work dates and job titles. This means that you will only need to contact the HR department from the candidate’s previous company. However, with automated referencing tools, it is simpler and faster than ever to get useful information for your hiring process. and let Zinc show you how you can maximise your reference checks with minimal effort.

Consider the following questions when checking references to verify employment:

  • What was the candidate's most recent position at your company?
  • Please confirm the dates at which the candidate worked there?
  • Was the candidate full time or part time; permanent or temporary?
  • What was your job title while the candidate worked at company?

Which questions should I avoid when checking references?

In many countries there are laws protecting people from discrimination so you shouldn’t ask referees anything that will lead to any kind of prejudice. In the UK, the government lists characteristics protected under UK law: age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation. Outside of the UK, you should check your national equality laws to ensure you are up-to-date and legally compliant in your referencing and hiring practices.

Despite these protection laws, there are still potentially discriminatory questions commonly asked during the reference check. Here are some of the common topics you should avoid when referencing.

Sick days

Questions around sick days are common, for example asking how many sick days or holiday the candidate has taken in the last year. These questions are more focused on the candidate’s health rather than their skills and ability to do the job. Remember, not all disabilities are visible and they can be physical or mental. If a referee tells you that the candidate has taken lots of sick days, this is only going to lead to prejudice against the candidate rather than focusing on their talent.

If you think sick days are likely to be an issue due to health or disability reasons, ensure you maintain healthy, open communication with the candidate and work with them to identify how best to support them so you can retain them.

Marriage or relationship status

Questions about partners or marriage, particularly for women, should also be avoided. These questions are usually asked to judge whether a woman may need to take time off for pregnancy and maternity. As these are protected characteristics, questions around this topic should be avoided as they can unfairly disadvantage women. It can also lead to disclosure of sexuality which is another characteristic that could lead to prejudice.

Again, if you think this is likely to be an issue, maintain healthy, open communication with the candidate and if any issues arise, consider discussing flexible working scenarios to find a solution to support and retain your talent.  


Some recruiters ask referees about a candidate’s appearance. Usually these questions are asked to verify that the candidate is neat, clean and professional in their appearance, however this can lead to answers about their physical looks rather than their overall presentation. It is better to assess this at an interview or trial period rather than during a reference check as you could accidentally elicit risky information.

Negative scenarios or inappropriate behaviour

Asking whether a negative scenario happened or whether the candidate ever acted inappropriately are leading questions that only serve to catch people out. You also have to think about the kind of information you will get back from these questions. If you receive sensitive information about your candidate, it is your responsibility to act appropriately, and you have to be careful about overturning any hiring decisions after receiving this kind of feedback.

Rather than focusing on previous negative behaviour, it may be more useful to set clear expectations and boundaries from the offset and ensure you foster a positive work culture where your people are accountable and take ownership of their behaviour and responsibilities.

When checking a candidate's references, avoid the following questions:

  • How many sick days did the candidate have in the last year?
  • Is the candidate married?
  • Does the candidate plan on having children?
  • Rate the candidate's appearance on a scale of 1-10
  • Did the candidate ever behave inappropriately while at work?

A new standard for reference checks

Traditionally, referencing has been used for compliance, but with technological advancements, new ways of referencing have been developed. Check out our referencing guide for everything you need to know to update your referencing practices.

Automated referencing tools can collect new forms of data and information that will better inform your hiring process and make. If you collect information about your candidate’s best work environments, work styles, and motivations, you can, pair the candidate with the right people and create incentives that will really drive your candidate.

With automated referencing tools, you can ask referees multiple-choice questions that are quantifiable, such as asking a referee to choose between a selection of work environments. Questions like this do not imply any preferred outcomes so the referee can be candid in their response, helping you decide which candidate would thrive in your unique work culture.

We designed our reference checking tool to enhance your candidates’ experience. It is simple to use and the candidate gets to keep the references in a shareable profile. This means they only have to ask their referees to provide a reference once and they can reuse the references throughout their career.

Discover a better way for reliable automated background checks