Your Browser Is Out of Date :(

Some sections of this website won’t display properly in your browser.
For the best experience, please update to one of the newer options below.



5 Questions to Ask Your Job Candidate’s References

How to get the most out of a prospect's biggest cheerleaders

You just selected your favorite job applicant. Now’s time to ring up their references to find out as much as you can about your new potential employee. And to help you make sure you’re asking the most valuable questions, we turned to talent acquisition experts and careers coaches. Read on as we share the top 5 questions to ask your job candidate’s references.

1. “Why did he leave the job?”

Even if an applicant told you why he left a job, it’s important to get the story from the supervisor’s perspective, as well. “You’ll be able to get a more well-rounded view,” says Nicole Williams, founder of WORKS by Nicole Williams. That’s a nice way of saying “you’ll find out if he left or if he was pushed.”

Any substantial discrepancies between a candidate’s and his former manager’s version of events should raise a red flag. After all, if an applicant isn’t forthcoming before starting the job, what makes you think he will be after?

2. “If you were to give her one piece of career advice, what would it be?”

This hypothetical question was suggested by David Gaspin, talent acquisition manager for, who advises focusing as much on imperfections as star qualities. Another example: “Under what conditions have you seen her struggle or get stressed out?”

Michael B. Junge, a staffing and recruiting expert and author of Purple Squirrel: Stand Out, Land Interviews, and Master the Modern Job Market likes the idea of putting such questions in a mentoring context, rather than just asking for a candidate’s biggest flaws. “Everyone has weaknesses, but most references couch their real concerns,” he says. “Asking a reference where they would focus their coaching efforts gets to a similar place, but is far more likely to produce practical, actionable feedback.”

3. “What were his specific responsibilities?”

This question not only reveals misrepresentations of a candidate’s prior role, but is also a good way to see if the reference worked closely enough with the candidate to offer a useful assessment.

“If the person on the other line is stumbling or can’t remember details, it’s safe to assume they didn’t work closely,” says Williams. “Knowing how much time these two actually worked together can pinpoint how much of their answers you can trust.”

4. “Is she promotion or management material?”

Bettina Seidman, president of SEIDBET Associates Career Management Coaching, recommends questions that focus on an applicant’s potential, not just her past record. These include questions related to the person’s presentation, entrepreneurial ability, management and leadership abilities.

Kathryn Ullrich, executive search consultant and author of Getting to the Top: Strategies for Career Success, agrees. “Most references will not come up with a weakness, but everyone can be developing a new skill,” she says, recommending the question “What skill do they need to work on next?”

5. “Can you recommend someone else there I can talk to?”

“Everyone gives references who love them, want them to succeed, and who will most likely be hesitant to say anything negative,” says former recruiter and sales consultant Jeff Goldberg.

That’s why he believes it’s fair game to ask one reference to recommend another at the same workplace. “By going to the next level of potential references, you often get a more truthful picture,” Goldberg says.

Bottom line: After interviewing a candidate, his colleagues, and his managers, the person you need to trust most is still yourself. So, use this advice to put yourself in the best position to make a well-informed decision about your next direct report.

Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get our best career advice and job search tips.