Reference Check: 7 Questions to Ask

December 20, 2021


The research suggests that reference checks are poor predictors of future performance, which, after all, is what the selection process is about; you are trying to predict the future performance of a candidate. The research suggests one should not put too much weight on references check, however, they need to be done and any selection process would feel incomplete if they were not done. At the minimum they are probity checks to at least confirm a candidate’s work history, however, beyond the standard range of questions that are asked, what are some other questions that may yield reliable information about a candidate.

Areas to ask questions about are honest-humility, conscientiousness, and guilt-proneness. These traits are hallmarks of an ethical employee.

Honesty-humility captures the motivational aspect of moral character—the desire to do good and avoid wrongdoing. Conscientiousness captures the willpower element of moral character—the facility and determination to do the right thing. Guilt-proneness captures thoughts and feelings that are a blend of honesty-humility and conscientiousness. Guilt-proneness is the extent to which a person would feel bad if he or she did something wrong, even if no one knew about it. It predicts a deep sense of responsibility for others, which helps to explain why recent studies have found that a person’s guilt proneness is an excellent predictor of job performance and leadership skills.

This knowledge gives us clues as to what we should look for when making hiring decisions and promoting people to leadership decisions.  When evaluating a job candidate consider asking these questions of their referees:

  1. Would this person feel bad about committing a transgression or making mistake even if no one knew what he or she did?
  1. Does he or she have a strong sense of responsibility for others?
  1. Would this person feel bad about letting others down?
  1. Is this person truthful, humble and fair?
  1. Is this person hard-working, careful and thorough when completing tasks?
  1. This question is a bit left field, but, if this person was using the photocopier and it malfunctioned while they were using it would they walk away and not tell anyone or would they try and fix it or get someone who could?
  1. Please describe a time when you made a mistake at work?

How did they feel when this occurred?

What did they do?

What, if anything, did they learn from this experience?

Who an organisation hires is one of their most important decisions. Get it right, it can lead to increased productivity, staff engagement and workplace harmony. Get it wrong and it can be a very costly mistake. Reference checks are but a small part of the selection process, but a necessary one and perhaps one, or all of these questions, may help you with your recruitment decision.

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I am a Workplace Psychologist and owner of Fermion. I enjoy keeping up to date with the latest research in workplace psychology and sharing that information so that you can, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

The focus of Fermion is psychometric testing for recruitment and “Recruitment to Retention: How to Select Good Staff & Keep Them.” It is through being up to date and adopting an evidence-based approach to work, that I can give my clients the latest and best scientific and empirical advice.

If you are looking to improve your staff selection, induction, and retention processes, contact me at Fermion to arrange a personal presentation at your office, or via videoconferencing. Please contact me at or 0401 752 602.