Reference check questions employers might ask

Reference check questions employers might ask
SEEK content teamupdated on 29 February, 2024

You’ve made it to the final stage of the interview process – congratulations! It means you’ve had to answer some tough interview questions and made a good impression. Now there’s one important step left before you can secure the new role: the reference check.

During the job interview reference check, it’s time for your trusted co-workers and former managers to sing your praises. Instead of just hoping for the best, there are things you can do to prepare your referees for the reference check questions they’re likely to get. In this article, we look at what employers are looking for during reference checks and provide a reference check questions template that you can use to guide your referees through the process.

What is a reference check? 

A reference check is usually the final stage of the interview process. Talking to your referees gives a hiring manager insight into your past performance, skills and knowledge, and how you handle yourself at work. It tells them about your work ethic, achievements and interpersonal skills, and lets them know how well you match up with the job requirements and company culture.

You’re protected by the Privacy Act

When conducting reference checks, Australian employers are bound by privacy laws, which dictate how personal information can be collected and used. Employers must ensure that their reference checking process complies with the Privacy Act 1988, which includes handling personal information responsibly and ethically. Legally, a potential employer must get your consent before contacting your references. 

Why employers ask for reference checks 

Reference checks are an essential tool for employers to get insights into your abilities and attitude from a credible third party. Here are some of the reasons they are carried out.

Lower hiring risk 

Reference checks confirm that your job application and resumé are accurate and true. A hiring manager can ask your references about your past performance and verify that the experience listed on your resumé is correct. It’s a confirmation that you have the skills you say you have and that you can do the job you’re applying for. Hiring a new employee is expensive and time consuming, so they want to make sure they make the right decision. 

Verify credentials

A reference check allows employers to check that you have the qualifications you claim to have. They look into your educational background, work experience and specific skill sets to ensure you meet the job requirements.

Assess for cultural fit

By speaking to your old bosses and colleagues through a reference check, employers can gauge how well you collaborate with others, and if you will fit into the company culture. They get a glimpse into how you might interact with your new colleagues and contribute to the team.

When do hiring managers ask for reference checks?

Reference checks are an important part of the interview process, but they aren’t always carried out at the same stage. The timing of these checks can change between interviews, so it’s always good to be prepared well in advance. Here are some of the most common times:

  • After initial interviews. If you've completed interviews and the hiring manager considers you a good fit for the role, they might check references straight away. 
  • Before the final interview. In some instances, employers prefer to conduct reference checks before they hold a final interview. This helps them ensure only the most suitable candidates are shortlisted for the final stage of the recruitment process.
  • After extending a conditional job offer. Sometimes, employers extend a job offer on the condition that your references check out. 
  • As part of background checks. Reference checks may also be integrated into a broader background check process. This can include verifying employment history, educational qualifications and doing criminal record checks.

Employment reference check questions

When it comes to the final stages of the hiring process in Australia, the reference check is often the last step before the job offer. It’s a chance for potential employers to dive deeper into your professional background by speaking with your referees. Understanding the types of questions that may be asked during these reference checks means you can brief your referees on what to expect. Here are some example reference check questions to answer as practice.

Introductory reference check questions

A reference check often starts by establishing the context of the relationship between you and your reference. The more senior your referee, the more credibility they will have in the hiring manager’s eyes. 

Establishing relationship

  • Nature of relationship: How and in what capacity did you work with the candidate? This question is about the professional relationship between you and your reference person – whether they were your boss, a supervisor or a team member.
  • Duration of working together: How long did you work together? This helps an employer work out how well they know you in a professional setting.
  • Candidate's role: What was the candidate's role when you were working together? Employers ask this to determine how the role you were in relates to the job on offer.

General impressions

  • Overall impressions: What was your first impression? The employer might ask for a general impression of you. This can include questions about your strengths, weaknesses and key characteristics.
  • Strengths and areas for improvement: What are their strengths and what are some areas for improvement? With this question, the hiring manager is looking for a balanced view of your capabilities and potential growth areas.

Professional background

  • Reference’s qualifications and expertise: What is their professional background? Asking about the reference’s own professional background and industry expertise is also common. This helps the hiring manager assess the credibility and relevance of their feedback about you.

Previous interactions

  • Nature and frequency of interactions: How often did you interact with the candidate? Questions about how often and in what contexts the reference interacted with you are important. This helps the employer understand how closely you worked together.

Performance-related reference check questions

When carrying out reference checks, it’s common for employers to ask performance questions to understand your abilities. These questions are designed to draw out examples of your achievements, challenges, skills and fit within a team or company culture.

Achievements and Challenges

  • Key responsibilities: What were the key responsibilities of the candidate in their last role? This question helps the employer understand your previous role.
  • Excellence in projects: Can you describe a project where the candidate particularly excelled? This question aims to get examples of where you showed exceptional skills or surpassed expectations.
  • Handling deadlines and pressure: How did the candidate handle deadlines and work pressure? This question looks at your ability to manage stress and deliver results under tight timelines.
  • Problem-solving skills: Can you give me an example of a time that a candidate confidently addressed a problem? Employers may ask for examples or scenarios where you showcased your critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities.

Skills and competencies

  • Specific skills assessment: What are some of the technical skills the candidate developed while working for you? Asking about specific skills related to your previous roles lets a hiring manager know what abilities or expertise you can bring to the role and if you would need any training. 
  • Proficiency examples: Can you give an example of a time that the candidate showed high proficiency in a key area? Employers might try to find out if there’s any area where you’re particularly skilled. 

Culture fit

  • Teamwork: Can you give an example of the candidate’s ability to work in a team? This question aims to understand how you work in a collaborative environment and generally how well you get along with others.
  • Response to challenges: How do you think the candidate responds under pressure? Understanding how you perform when faced with challenges can give the employer an idea about how  resilient and adaptable you are.
  • Improvement opportunities: What are some key areas you think the candidate could improve in? An employer might be looking for potential weaknesses and areas where you may need development.
  • Preferred management style: What is the candidate’s preferred management style? This question helps a hiring manager know how well would fit within the existing management structure and company culture.

Reference check questions for your previous manager 

When a potential employer contacts your previous manager for a reference check, the questions tend to be more detailed. They focus on leadership, teamwork, decision-making abilities and overall contributions to the team or organisation. 

Team collaboration

  • Creativity and innovation: Is there an instance where the candidate’s creativity or innovation was particularly evident? This question is to uncover examples of your ability to bring new ideas to the table.
  • Communication skills: How effective is the candidate in communicating with colleagues and superiors? Understanding your communication style shows how well you work with others.
  • Conflict resolution: Has the candidate ever had to mediate a conflict or handle a difficult team situation? This question aims to get an idea of your approach to challenging team dynamics or if you have conflict resolution techniques.
  • Handling feedback: How does the candidate handle feedback from peers and supervisors? This lets the hiring manager know how you take criticism on board and how effectively you use it to improve.

Decision-making abilities

  • Problem solving in challenging situations: Can you describe a challenging situation the candidate faced and how they resolved it? This question looks at your ability to handle complex issues.
  • Strategic thinking and judgement: How does the candidate approach problem solving under pressure? Understanding how you make decisions, especially under pressure, is important to potential employers.

Rehire potential

  • Willingness to rehire: Given the opportunity, would you work with this candidate again? This question is a strong indicator of your overall performance and if you were a valuable contributor to your past employer.
  • Positive contributions: In what ways did the candidate contribute positively to your team or organisation? This question is looking for specific examples of how you added value.
  • Rehireable qualities: What makes the candidate a rehireable asset in your opinion? This question helps identify the strengths that make you stand out.

Openness to feedback

  • Areas for improvement: Can you identify any areas where the candidate could improve? This question aims to uncover any potential weaknesses.
  • Response to criticism: How has the candidate handled feedback or criticism in the past? Understanding your response to criticism can provide insights into your personality and if you’re adaptable and open to change.

Management style

  • Leadership style: How would you describe the candidate’s leadership style? Exploring your leadership style helps assess your approach to managing and guiding a team.
  • Feedback and development: Can you give an example of a time that the candidate gave feedback to their team. How did they deliver it? Questions about how you provided feedback to your co-workers and supported their professional development reveals your potential impact on company culture.

Reference check questions to ask co-workers

When reaching out to former co-workers for reference checks, the focus often shifts to understanding your role within team dynamics, your collaboration skills and how you communicate. 

Team dynamics

  • Contribution to team dynamics: How did the candidate contribute to the team dynamics? This question looks at your role in a team environment and your impact on the team in general.
  • Collaboration skills: Can you provide examples of how the candidate collaborated with the team on projects or tasks? This aims to see your ability to work well with others.
  • Impact on workplace culture: What impact did the candidate have on the workplace culture? Understanding your impact on the overall work environment can help assess your fit within a new team.

Communication skills

  • Effectiveness in team communication: How would you describe the candidate’s communication skills within the team? This question looks at how well you communicate with your peers.
  • Conflict resolution: Can you recall a situation where the candidate had to resolve a conflict or maintain a relationship within the team? Insights into how you handle disagreements or tensions show your conflict-resolution skills.

How employers conduct reference checks

Carrying out a reference check is usually a fairly straightforward process. Here are the main steps involved.

  1. Determining the number of references: employers usually decide on the number of references they wish to contact. This can vary depending on how senior the advertised role is and the employer’s policy. They typically ask for two to three references.
  2. Initial contact for references: after a candidate has successfully passed the interview stage, the HR department or the hiring manager will reach out to request references. This is usually done via email or phone call.
  3. Getting the candidate’s permission: before contacting any references, employers will seek permission from the candidate. This is a crucial step that is regulated by law to respect the candidate's privacy.
  4. Standard reference check process: most employers follow a standard reference check process. This process typically includes a set of questions designed to look at the candidate's employment history, assess their skills and competencies, and understand their work behaviour.

Methods of conducting reference checks

Many candidates mistakenly believe that all reference checks are carried out over the phone. This isn’t always the case. Here are the various ways a reference check can be handled.

  • Phone calls: many employers prefer phone calls for reference checks as they allow for more in-depth conversations and immediate follow-up questions.
  • Letters: in some cases, referees may prefer to write a signed letter the candidate can give to the potential employer outlining the reference.
  • Emails: some employers might use emails, especially if the referee is overseas or prefers written communication.
  • In-person meetings: though less common, in-person meetings can occur, particularly for high-level positions or within certain industries.

Reaching the final stages of a job application process is always an exciting achievement – now it’s just about getting over the finish line. Reference checks provide a chance for your potential employer to find out more information about your work history and your potential fit within their team. While the questions they ask will vary from interview to interview, a little preparation can go a long way. Start by giving your referees a heads-up that they may get a call. Let them know what the role is and the main skills needed so they can prepare answers that make you shine. 


What questions do employers ask in a reference check?

Employers typically ask questions about:

  • your job performance, 
  • responsibilities, 
  • work ethic, 
  • skills, and 
  • reasons for leaving your previous job. 

These questions verify the information you provided and to assess your suitability for the role.

What is a reference check question?

A reference check question is a question asked to a job applicant’s former employer or colleague. Its purpose is to gather information about past job performance, skills and workplace behaviour. They range from verifying factual information about employment history to questions about a job seeker’s strengths, weaknesses and work habits.

What can references say in a reference check?

References can provide information about your previous:

  • job duties, 
  • performance, 
  • work ethic, and 
  • professional conduct. 

They can also offer insights into your strengths, areas for improvement and their ability to work in a team. Your referee isn’t expected to – and shouldn’t – share any personal opinions or information unrelated to job performance, such as details about your private life.

What can hiring managers not ask on a reference check?

Hiring managers can’t ask questions that violate anti-discrimination laws. This includes enquiries about:

  • age, 
  • race, 
  • religion, 
  • marital status, 
  • sexual orientation, or 
  • disabilities. 

They’re not allowed to ask questions that are irrelevant to your job performance or qualifications. The focus should remain on your professional abilities and suitability for the role.

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