what do employers ask when they call your references?

When you’re interviewing for a new job, the reference-checking process often feels shrouded in mystery: People are talking about you, but you don’t know exactly what they’re saying or what impact it will have on your candidacy.

Let’s demystify the process a bit! Here are 10 of the most common questions that reference-checkers ask, and what they’re looking for when they do.

1. “How do you know this person?” Savvy reference checkers won’t take the candidate’s word for this; they’ll ask the reference directly. That’s in order to make sure that the facts match up – but it’s also because sometimes the reference will reveal that yes, she was Jane Smith’s boss a few years ago but that Jane is also her best friend since childhood. That’s highly relevant information, because it makes it likely that the reference is biased in Jane’s favor more than she would be if their relationship was strictly professional.

2. “How long did you work together?” This is important because someone who managed you for four years is probably going to have a very different type of insight into your work and habits than someone who only managed you for a few months.

3. “How would you describe the quality of this person’s work overall?”This question is a bit of a softball. Most of the time it doesn’t elicit nuanced answers about the candidate’s work – but reference-checkers ask it because occasionally it will result in openly negative information. More often, it can result in an answer that damn through faint praise (like the distinctly unenthusiastic “she was fine”).

4. “How would you compare her overall performance to others you’ve seen doing similar work?” Here’s where answers often start getting more nuanced.

5. “What would you say are this person’s biggest strengths?” This is a good way to get the reference talking in specifics about the candidate’s work. Ideally the strengths that the reference describes will line up with the key criteria that the new employer is interested in – or will help them flesh out their understanding of what the person would bring to the role.

6. “What areas would you say this person could use some help improving in?” Gathering this type of insight is a hugely important part of checking references, to make sure that the candidate’s weaknesses aren’t likely to be fatal in this particular job. But since references may feel bad about providing negative information, savvy reference-checkers will often come up with other ways of asking the question, like “Are there any areas where you think she would need extra support in this role to make sure she succeeded?” or “If you had to pick two ways that Jane could improve, what would they be?” References who are hesitant to give a candid answer to “what are her weaknesses?” are often more willing to answer the question when it’s framed like this.

7. Specific questions about the skills needed for the job. Good reference checkers will tailor their questions to what’s most important to the job. They may also ask questions designed to get at areas where they’re less confident about the candidate’s skills or approach. That could be asking about anything from how the person does with deadlines to how she gets along with others.

8. “Why did she leave her job with your company?” Generally with this question, reference-checkers are just looking to make sure that the answer matches whatever reason the candidate has already given. For example, if the candidate reported that she left on her own, it’s going to raise concerns if the reference says that she was fired. (Typically a good reference-checker will then go back to the candidate with any disparities in case there was a miscommunication or – as occasionally happens – the reference provided inaccurate information.)

9. “Would you hire this person again?” People who have given a positive reference up until this point will sometimes hesitate at this question – which can be a flag for the reference-checker to dig deeper. An even better way of getting at how well the reference truly thinks of the person is, “If this person applied for a job with you again, would be cautiously interested or excited?”

10. “Is there anything else you would want to know if you were in my shoes?” This is interesting question that occasionally prompts really useful information – either good or bad – that hadn’t come out earlier. For example, a reference might volunteer that the person was a good worker but struggled with punctuality – something that might not have been elicited by any of the previous questions. Or the reference, realizing that the call is wrapping up, may want to give a final strong plug for hiring the person.





{ 41 comments… read them below }


    How do these questions change if the reference is not a previous supervisor? I know we have had several commenters say they have former colleagues they can use but with little work experience, there aren’t 3 supervisors they can provide for a hiring manager to contact

    1. all aboard the anon train*

      I’ve been a reference for a coworker and have been asked almost all of those questions. On that list, number 9 is the only one that wouldn’t work for a coworker reference, but I’ve always said “I wasn’t their manager, but I would definitely work with them again”.

      Usually one of the first questions I’m asked is whether I was their manager or not, but I think a coworker can still answer all those questions if they’ve worked with the candidate.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Basically these same questions. That said, good reference checkers will strongly prefer manager references (I won’t even call others, unless there’s something very unusual about the circumstances).

    3. paul*

      Or if you’ve lost touch with some of your former supervisors. Or they’re dead. Or incarcerated.

      1. Anon Accountant*

        Your last line about “incarcerated” made me laugh. Although I’ve had a supervisor I’ve wondered how he wasn’t incarcerated.

        I’m trying to imagine a hiring manager’s reaction if they asked why a supervisor at a specific company wasn’t available for a reference. “Well he’s incarcerated…”

        1. paul*

          One of my friends had a former supervisor–when he worked as a therapist!–get busted for selling drugs to clients which is why I wondered that. I think he only worked under her for 2-3 months before she wound up going to jail.

          The things you see sometimes…

    4. Mrs. Fenris*

      I am about to start a new job, and I did my job search without telling my boss I was looking. I’d been at that job for several years, so it was tough to come up with a lot of references. I used my first boss from years ago, a peer at the job I was looking to leave and I could trust not to tell anyone, and someone for whom I’ve done a good bit of independent contractor work.

      Soon-to-be Boss and First Boss know each other well, so even though I hadn’t worked for him in years, they apparently talked a good bit about me as a person (ethics and so forth). First Boss and I remain on very good terms, so that was fine. They asked Coworker mostly about how well I got along with coworkers and clients. And they asked IC Supervisor about the quality of my work itself and my record keeping. I was impressed with how they thought about what each of these people would know about me.

  2. Madame X*

    One of my colleagues who is amazing in her role and well respected by my bosses was almost not hired in her current position because her former supervisor writes the worst recommendation letters ever. His letter was 3 sentences long: it described her job title, how long she worked for him and the number of publications she wrote. This is highly unusual for our field and honestly not very informative (we could deduce all that that information from reading her CV). The only reason she got a call back was because she had previously worked with one of the people hiring manager’s colleague, who knew her to be an exceptional candidate. She later informed her former supervisor about his recommendation letter writing skills and he was honestly surprised. I think she was the first person he had ever had to write a LOR for. I really hope he has improved his writing skills since.

      1. Madame X*

        Yeah, her experience definitely highlighted to me how ineffective they can be especially when the author of the LOR is not very good at writing them.
        My field definitely requires them, but the above example highlights the pitfall of relying on them in place of reference forms.

      2. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Ugh, my current job, when I was a finalist, sprung on me that they wanted letters from my references. It didn’t mention any of that in the job posting, but they asked for them when I was about to be made an offer. So I had to contact my references and ask them to all of a sudden produce a letter.

        Then, when I was hiring for my direct report’s position, we got to the offer stage, and the department head sprung on me that he wanted letters from the person’s references. So I was pressured to spring it on the candidate the same way that it was sprung on me the previous year.

        I asked the HR guy if that was common practice for the college, and he was surprised that it was happening. He said it was totally the department head’s pecadillo, and that we shouldn’t require the letters if the job posting didn’t ask for them. Nevertheless, the department head insisted, so I just made a note to myself that for future searches, I would put the letter-of-reference requirement in the job posting.

        BTW, I’m in higher ed, so I guess that’s why the weirdness.

  3. imakethings*

    Curious what you do when you have employers that will not give references. My current employer (and others within this industry) have it written in their handbook that they will not give references and can only confirm the employee works/worked there.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ve literally never had trouble getting a reference from managers at those companies. Obviously my personal experience isn’t the be-all, end-all, but those policies are easier to get around than people often think. It’s usually HR who sticks to them, while people’s actual managers don’t.

      That said, if someone has a past manager who’s a stickler for that rule, I’ll need them to come up with other people who can speak with nuance about their work.

      1. Lablizard*

        I’m not directing this at you, Allison. I just need a brief rant on this topic.


        This is very industry dependent and recruiters that don’t get that some employers are dead serious on the “no references” vex the crap out of me. If I say you need to talk to HR, do not pressure me to give you information and do not try calling others in the company and try and pressure them. “We don’t give references, please call HR at XXX-XXX-XXXX)” means exactly that. And yes, I am the person that called your manager and complained about your lack of industry appropriate professional norms.


        (Why yes, I did have one of these last week who was as obnoxious as she was persistent)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I agree that’s unprofessional. I’m not talking about that kind of intense approach. I’ve just found that managers at those companies are more willing to talk than you’d think from the policy. Obviously there must be exceptions, but I haven’t run into them personally.

          1. Jesmlet*

            It’s a bit hard to get around from an applicant’s perspective though. My supervisor at my last job told us as a group that under no circumstances can managers give references and any call they get goes straight to HR. When you hear that, there’s really not much you can do especially if that was your first job out of college. Do you just put down the number anyways and hope they’re flexible? Moot point now since my company hired me anyways but these policies really suck when they’re actually adhered to.

          2. Lablizard*

            Personally I think it is the result of poor training by the recruiter/hiring manager’s companies. I am in a pretty niche field with very, very high security standards. If someone is being asked to check references at my company or one of our competitors the “no references” policies in our field ought to be well known, the reference checker should have been given a heads up.

            For the record, I chewed out the reference checker’s manager for not training her properly since they definitely should have known better. That field and my field swap staff pretty regularly. I guessed that the reference checker was new and her experience was more in line with yours and her boss should have prepped her better.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              The burden isn’t on the reference checker to maintain the company’s policy for them; it’s on the company. If I’m checking references and someone is willing to talk to me, I’m not going to be like, “no, your company doesn’t want you talking to me.”

              1. DottyJ*

                My company has this policy but I’ve always given references for people I’ve managed – I have to do them from my personal email account and/or phone number since we have been explicitly told that we cannot do them from work email. We also have to include a disclaimer that it’s a “personal” and not a “[company name]” reference. I’ve just explained to the reference checker that I’m giving a personal reference based on my experience managing that person for X amount of time/between …dates. It’s not ideal but it’s the only way I’ve found to give a reference without being seen to violate the policy

              2. Lablizard*

                Since this company and ones in my industry exchange employees a lot, I think they should have ​given her a heads up to not try and get around our policy and to just call HR when told. She went for the, “I can always get a reference to talk” route and it was not well received. I thought that was an unfair position for her boss to put her in. He knew damned well not to press the issue with us. He doesn’t do it himself.

          3. edj3*

            We are flat not allowed to provide references at my current company. If I were to do that and were found out, I’d likely lose my job.

          4. imakethings*

            I’m job hunting right now to get out of the industry with these kinds of restrictions. On applications that have check boxes on whether or not we can contact our current employer, I’ve just left them black, both because I don’t want them to know I’m job hunting and because they don’t give references. I just disclose as much if they’re asked. I have plenty of other references, but the policy just seems so odd to me, though I understand their intent (security and liability).

      2. KatiePie*

        My boss *is* the HR manager (well, Finance manager, but covers HR & is very much a stickler). That’s unfortunate for me down the road. If it weren’t for that lousy rule, I know my reference would be glowing.

    2. Not a Real Giraffe*

      Maybe I’m just being really obtuse, but can someone explain the reason that some companies have this policy in place?

      1. Lablizard*

        For many it is a liability issue. They don’t want to be sued, which is unlikely, but could happen. At my work it is more security and anti-corporate espionage, plus a few other more serious security concerns. A good social engineer can get a lot of information out of someone during a reference check, so all reference requests go to HR.

      2. SarahKay*

        In the UK, at least, references have to be accurate. You can say good or bad things about someone, but in the worst case either the (ex) employee, or the new company may try to sue for you having given inaccurate information. At which point you have to be able to back up your reference with evidence (e.g good performance reviews for a good reference, or five written warnings for lateness if you said the employee was chronically bad at timekeeping).

        From a large company’s point of view, if all you say is “I confirm that Wakeen worked for us, starting 1st June 2000 and leaving 1st May 2017” then you remove any risk of not being able to back up that reference, or indeed of even being asked to do so.

        1. John*

          I worked for a global company in which a manager gave a recommendation for a direct report. Not sure what happened, but the company was sued and the manager was fired. This happened in the UK.

  4. Jesmlet*

    +1 on the phrasing for weaknesses. We usually ask, “Is there anything about ___ you would’ve improved or changed if you could? It’s also how we ask applicants themselves. People are far more likely to give you useful information if you phrase it this way rather than coming at it from a more negative “what do they/you suck at?” point of view. A lot of it is reading between the lines too. People who check a lot of references know that usually when someone is described as “fine” or “good” it means there was something lacking, even if the reference doesn’t say it. We as a company also like to ask if there’s any specific ways the applicant exceeded expectations. That answer tells you a lot, especially how high the expectations were at their previous job (example: “she always came to work on time.” I got this today, best quality? She was very timely).

  5. TeacherNerd*

    Apropos! I’m currently serving as a reference for a oon-to-be-former colleague (and now wish, in hindsight, I had declined to be a reference) – in fact, I just returned someone’s call this morning – and these were all questions I was asked.

    I am not a manager (in my case, I am not a grade-level team leader, department chair, or school administrator), and it’s serendipitous that I happen to know some of the things I happen to know about my soon-to-be-former colleague, whose credibility is shot, not only with my department, but with me (she’s lied, borrowed largish sums of money never repaid, etc.). Not only that but I’ve never actually observed her teaching, so why she even wanted to use me as a reference is questionable. Why I said yes is also questionable. (Really, I’m trying to figure out how to recuse myself from further referencing for my colleague.)

    1. Lucy Richardson*

      I think that’s actually easy if you do it right now. “I just got the first reference call for you, and realized I don’t actually know enough about your work to be an effective reference. It would be in your best interests to find someone else.”

      1. TeacherNerd*

        That’s a good script – thank you for that! (I do actually think it can be helpful to hear some of the not-so-great things about people, but if they want feedback on her actual teaching, I can’t help her with that, and I was realizing that the things I WAS speaking about were things like not showing up for regular professional development or keeping contract hours; while there are a lot of jobs where can trickle in late without it impacting your work, teaching isn’t really one of those jobs because, you know…students.)

      2. not really a lurker anymore*

        My former coworker needed a reference from someone who had worked with him for 5 years as a non-supervisor. They played musically supervisors with him and everyone else hadn’t been here anywhere near long enough. So he asked me if I’d be a reference of sorts. He said he’d talked to the reference person about it so they knew going it that I was going to be a sort of work friend reference.

        The job was an internal transfer to an area that had higher security qualifications.

  6. saby*

    I just got a reference check this morning that had a question that threw me — something like “What are Cersei’s professional habits?” which, with a bit more digging, turned out to be a weird way of asking if Cersei is easy to manage or requires handholding/close supervision. I do get questions like that sometimes because my direct reports are university students so most of the jobs they’re interviewing for are entry-level and the hiring managers want to figure out where they are in terms of professional norms.

  7. NoMoreMrFixit*

    This didn’t happen to me but it’s definitely something I’m capable of: Coworker told me of a reference check for a previous job where the caller pressured their reference provider for negative feedback. Refused to accept there was nothing to criticize. In the end the response that ended the interrogation/phone call was “my only complaint is that he has a really dorky haircut”.

  8. DottyJ*

    I struggle as a manager with the question “would you employ Jane again?”. Jane left around 3 years ago and I’ve had a few reference requests in that time. Jane was a very good performer in many ways – picked things up quickly, always had new and interesting ideas but was also over-confident (we have to follow up face-to-face performance reviews with written feedback – in her first performance evaluation she returned the report to me where she’d re-written MY comments to make them much more glowing!), she also tried to strong-arm a significant promotion six months in by writing a six page email outlining the ways in which she excelled over her team mates, pointing out each of their perceived flaws. The requests I’ve had have all been standard forms asking me to rate her on different skills and attributes – I can score her highly in many of the technical aspects but I’ve had to say “no” when asked if I’d hire her again because as brilliant as she was in some ways, she simply wasn’t the type of person I’d want in my team again. I couldn’t in good conscience say “yes” to that question but answering “no” may be harsh without giving more of an explanation which is difficult to word concisely on a form. She was a recent graduate with little real work experience apart from one of our competitors where this kind of self-promotion and backstabbing is notorious (they regularly make people re-interview in groups for their jobs) so maybe she thinks this is normal!

      1. DottyJ*

        Ha ha, not quite! But yes – they would “restructure” probably once a year and do lay offs and transfers as part of these. Staff would be asked for an interview – often with an external consultant they’d pull in for this sole task – and get them to explain why their role was important and why they should keep it! Needless to say many people have come to our company from there. Given that was Jane’s primary work experience post-uni coming to us, it gives some explanation to her behaviour – and hope that she’ll grow out of it with a bit more experience.

  9. De Minimis*

    We do standard questions, but they are open-ended to where there’s plenty of opportunity to give information.

    My employer has a couple of practices that I think should be changed. It would be good if we sometimes contacted people not on the list, but that’s sometimes difficult to do. I’m the person who calls the references, and they are always super glowing since they’re the people the candidate has picked. The only change we’ve made recently [after making a really bad hire last year] is that we’re cautious if references are not former managers [especially if they’re people who didn’t even work for the same employer….]

    That also leads me to the second thing…reference checks are done by HR, and not by the candidate’s potential manager. The manager sees the results of the reference checks, but they are otherwise removed from the reference checking process. This is not a good thing either.

  10. Ramona Flowers*

    This is fascinating to me as over here (UK) references are generally requested in writing – not letters of recommendation you see and send on yourself, rather your referees get sent something with similar types of questions to the ones you mention here.

  11. John*

    It is interesting that HR professionals think that someone’s previous manager is automatically a good reference to speak to a candidate’s qualifications. There are terrible managers out there. Candidates leave companies most often because of the manager and not the company. I had a job where I had 8 managers in a 3-year period. Would I ever give any of them as a reference? No. If I did, wouldn’t I ask the ones who would give me glowing recommendations?

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