what do reference-checkers ask?

I promised recently to write a post about what types of questions reference-checkers ask, and I’ve realized that I have a shortcut that I can use:  The Management Center has a great mini-guide to checking references, which includes suggested questions to ask. My reference questions are very similar to theirs, and they’ve already written theirs up.

It’s worth noting that there are two types of reference checks: There’s a basic employment verification (did the person work there, for how long, what was her title, etc.), and then there’s an actual reference check, which asks questions of substance.

Then, within the real reference checks, we can break it down even further: There are lame reference-checkers who tend to stick to asking about attendance and superficial questions about work quality, and then there are good reference checkers who really probe about the person’s work. The link above will take you to the sorts of questions used by the latter.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. jamie cummins*

    I always find it somewhat terrifying when people call and what to know about previous employees. Most of the time I give them corporates phone number so I don’t end up something wrong that would cause problems.

  2. Anonymous*

    I’ve had a look at that reference guide and it’s utterly ridiculous. You interview the candidate, not the referee. I have only ever supplied a written reference for former staff – I would not be willing to be barraged with such questions about a former staff member who may not have worked with me for some time over the phone. Again, you’re not interviewing the referee.

  3. Wilton Businessman*

    That’s a pretty extensive guide, I wouldn’t answer 90% of the questions. Much beyond employment period, title, and would you hire Susan again and my legal buzzers are going off.

  4. Dawn*

    I agree. I know the point of all these questions is for the potential employer to complete their due diligence and get a really good handle on what they might expect from the candidate, but this seems overly burdensome to a former employer. I have never been asked anything beyond whether I’d hire the person again, what was their work quality and attendance like, and the usual fact-checking questions.

  5. Eric*

    Holy Cow!

    Thanks for torpedoing one of my references!

    These “Miss America” questions (as I love to call them) run the risk of not getting genuine feedback as the reference struggles with the question.

    Also, I found it odd that there was nothing about establishing the reliability of the reference. Questions such as:
    “How were you related to Y?”
    “How much did you interact with Y on a daily basis?”

  6. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Wow, I’ve checked zillions of references and I’ve never had someone refuse to answer these types of detailed questions or say they’ll only answer them in writing. Never. And if they did, I’d take it as the same as a lukewarm reference — because in my experience, people want to help out awesome former employees and will take the 15 minutes to do so, so if they wouldn’t, that would raise a concern for me.

    1. Liz in a library*

      I have not checked zillions of references, but I have checked dozens, and I have also never had anyone refuse to answer these kinds of questions. I have occasionally had people say they didn’t have the opportunity to see the applicant do X, but that even is usually followed up with a “But let me tell you about how they’ve handled Y…”

    2. Joe*

      Your comments section needs a “Like” button, so I can just say how wise this is without needing to comment on my own. But yeah, this is spot on. I’ve never checked references (although I have people reporting to me, I’m not the one who does that part of the process when hiring for my team; that’s a whole other topic that I won’t get into…), but when I’ve given references, I was happy to answer questions like these, because I liked the person being asked about, and wanted to help them land the job, and I knew that just by being honest (including recognition of their faults, since nobody is perfect), I could do so. I even once gave a reference for someone who was currently working for me (she asked me ahead of time, and I knew she was looking for a new job, and understood why and supported her in it), and was asked questions like this, and had a good conversation with the person on the other end.

      The only time I wouldn’t be comfortable answering questions like this is if I felt I didn’t have good things to say, and even then, the only reason is that I would worry about getting in trouble with the company, not for personal reasons. I do not feel any obligation to defend someone who is not good at their job, and would want to warn another company against a bad employee, but I believe my company may have a policy on references that I wouldn’t want to get in trouble on by giving a bad reference. Fortunately, I’ve never had anyone working for me that I would feel I couldn’t give a good reference for. (Some of my peers and managers, on the other hand…..)

  7. Anonymous*


    It isn’t the case of not wanting to help a former employee out, it’s a case of having a busy workload and not having the time for a detailed phone conversation about someone who may have left some time ago. It’s unrealistic to expect an employer to take up a significant chunk of their time out of a busy working day to do this, and shouldn’t be interpreted as a bad mark against the candidate.

    I write references for staff who leave as part of the outgoing process, and clear them with HR. I cover dates of employment, any courses attended, feedback during appraisals and note whether I would employ them again. As far as I am concerned, a written reference should be all the future employer needs.

  8. just another hiring manager...*

    Geez, I am surprised by those of you who think the list is crap. Would I ask all of those questions in a reference? Absolutely not. Would I choose the top 2-3 that will help me get a better understanding of the candidate that perhaps hasn’t come through in the interview process so far? Without a doubt.

    If you find asking a few questions that will help meet your needs as an employer to be burdensome, I would assume that you may not be finding the best candidates with the best fit for a given position. If you find answering a few questions about a former employee equally burdensome, you may be hurting that person’s chances with your refusal to answer a few questions.

    And your legal buzzer shouldn’t be going off if you answer those types of questions truthfully. Am I missing something here?

    1. Dawn*

      I don’t think it’s crap. I just think it’s a bit excessive. I wouldn’t refuse to answer the questions if someone called me.

      1. just another hiring manager...*

        The list in its entirety is a lot, but wouldn’t you agree that asking 2-3 key questions from it is not excessive? Beyond 2-3 key questions, then I would see it as too much for both the reference checker and former employer. But it is certainly worth asking those 2-3 questions. The answer to those 2-3 questions is the difference between finding someone with a a decent fit for the position and someone with a strong fit.

        1. Brian*

          I wouldn’t want to take all the time that would be needed to respond to all of these inquiries.

          How’s this for an idea, if you can get a hold of Susan collude with her on it and let her do most of the work? You can edit and submit the final copy.

  9. Anonymous*

    I think there should be different levels of reference checking for different years of experience. For example, the questions on this sheet would be good for somebody with 20 years of experience in the industry who’s worked for several different managers, companies, and projects. Someone 3-5 years out of college looking for their second job, I don’t think these questions would be fair. How could a prospective company contact their current employer.

    1. Ask an Advisor*

      These types of questions are still totally relevant even for people with less experience, if tailored to the position. In addition to direct supervisors, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelash to see professors, internship supervisors, co-workers on major projects, etc. on the reference sheet of recent graduates/people with less experience.

  10. b*

    I’m surprised by this. At my last job, no one was allowed to discuss anything beyond dates of employment and job title. In fact, they have a service that does this and if you are contacted by someone for a reference you were to tell them to call the service.

    My new job has the same policy, only no outside service. I assumed this was the norm.

    1. Joe*

      Think of it as a limited form of civil disobedience. I think it’s a horrible policy to tell people they’re not allowed to give references, especially in cases where they want to give a good reference, so I choose to disobey directives of this type. As I mentioned above, I’ve never yet had an employee that I would’ve given a bad reference too, so I haven’t had to decide how far to take my disobedience. I do have to exercise a certain amount of self-preservation, and would not want to risk getting fired for giving someone a bad reference, if I thought it might be taken to that extreme.

    2. Jaime*

      My company is the same way. I can list my supervisor’s name on an application, but we’re supposed to list HR’s phone number for any references. If they contact our supervisor directly, then they’re supposed to direct them to HR. No real references about our work, only length of employment and rate of pay. They won’t even tell a future employer if you were fired. Great if you’re fired and don’t want to admit, but terrible if you’re an excellent employee who has a good relationship with their manager.

    3. Joy*

      Everyone seems to be looking at this from the previous manager perspective. When I have chosen references to submit to a prospective employer, I certainly do choose at least one previous manager, but I also choose co-workers, even previous direct reports. Those people are not bound by the ‘rules of reference giving’ and could offer up some very useful information if asked. I personally love this reference checklist. I saved a copy on my desktop because I love the way the questions are framed. You can get the info you need (good and bad) without making the person giving it feel like they are being disloyal to the candidate.

  11. anonymous*

    What do you do, as an applicant, if you work for a company where the culture is so toxic that there’s no one you feel you could give as a reference?

    In my current situation, I’m able to give my psup and bypass my boss and immediate supervisors completely (they are toxic and have treated me horribly,) but beyond that, what can an applicant do?

    I know some people will come back with things like, “Well, maybe you’re just not a good employee,” (etc.) but trust me: I am not the problem in this situation. There are people at my company who have stated this, as well. My current group is known to be “special.”

    Thanks for any guidance.

    1. Anonymous*

      I’ve been in that exact situation before and risked it by asking if they’d provide a good reference. Luckily they wanted me out as much as I wanted out (horrible mean-spirited people to all outside departments and I don’t roll that way), so they provided a good reference that time. I only use other people from that company as references now.

  12. Greg*

    I am not a manager, but I have been listed as a reference for a position internal to the company by a coworker whom I respect and have a friendly relationship with. I absolutely think he is a great employee and that anybody would be lucky to hire him.

    For some reason HR sent me a list with 16 of these types of questions on it and I hate them for it. It is literally taking me hours of my personal time to fill this cursed thing out. I only found this page because I was looking around to figure out how common this type of stuff is. If it is this common then I feel terribly guilty for ever having listed someone as a reference. I now plan to make a practice out of buying my references a lunch or dinner in the future.

    Reading this post and the comments has been upsetting for me. This is a terrible position to put somebody in and YOU are the jerk, not the person who needed a reference. I think it is flat out inappropriate and wrong for anybody to ask me what my coworker’s greatest achievement is. That puts the job seeker at a total disadvantage and it gives the reference a big opportunity to somehow inadvertently screw up the job seeker’s career. The hiring process is a delicate phase where the smallest inappropriate comment said out of turn could kill the entire deal. But here I am trying to devise how best to answer the question about how my coworker might improve himself. Why? Because I like him and I want him to get the position that he is seeking.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      First of all, it’s bad practice to ask references to answer questions in writing. It takes up more of their time so it’s an imposition, plus the reference checker can’t ask follow-ups or hear tone of voice, and people often aren’t willing to put things in writing that they’d say over the phone. So it’s a bad practice all around.

      However, the questions themselves are incredibly useful to employers in finding the right fit. Surely you understand why employers want to hear from people who have worked with the candidate, not just the candidate herself.

  13. Arts Nerd*

    Thanks so much for this, Alison! I’m gearing up to conduct my first reference check (never handled hiring on my own before) and found it incredibly helpful. I know my first call will be a glowing review of the applicant, but I want to follow up on particular weaknesses in the interview to see if it was just nerves or if I should plan to re-structure some duties if I make the hire.

    I’m a little surprised by the reaction in the comments. I’ve had an employer with a policy against giving references, but no one paid it any mind unless it was for a problem employee. Seems like it was just the company’s way of minimizing their liability against litigation.

  14. Kristen Wyman*

    Question, for anyone who can give me a good answer. I have to list my previous employer on my resume as an employment history, and a lot of places I’m applying to are contacting them as a job reference. I essentially was fired, but they gave me a letter stating I was laid off and my services were no longer needed. The reason I was fired was because my supervisor found out I am gay, and that I don’t follow her religion, so she went to the head honcho and lied through her teeth saying I was late every day (even though the card scanner to get in the building says otherwise) and I never did my work (even though numerous employees can account that I was constantly asking for more work to do because I would finish my stuff so quickly). It was at a courthouse, and run by the “who you know” policy, so if anyone were to speak up and fight back, or back someone up on the “crap list” they would be soon fired as well. I have learned through a couple of staged phone calls, and a couple places I had applied to and been turned down that they are giving me an extremely bad reference. How can I avoid this negativity? What would a potential employer take from this information when there are references that work at the same place giving good references about my work performance?

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