Ross Campbell Financial Services Insurance Recruiter
By Ross Campbell, Financial Services & Insurance Recruiter

Key 10 in my blog series, Hire Wisdom: The 12 Keys to Successful Hiring, is Perform Reference Checks.  When I started writing this blog post, all I kept thinking was…

“How can I get people to care about reference checks?”

That’s because conducting reference checks have become one of the least meaningful parts of the hiring process.  People have started to think of them as a final box to check, a task to “get out of the way” when the candidate has all but signed on the dotted line… but they’re wrong!  Thinking of reference checks this way is a missed opportunity.  Remember, a bad hire is costly, both in time and money – the cost of attrition is one to three times an employee’s salary!

A reference check is an invaluable opportunity to make a smarter, more informed decision about your next hire and to learn about their past performance and quirks beyond what they can tell you about themselves.  Have I convinced you that you should care about reference checks yet?  If so, read on for my preferred reference check questions and some major do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.

Get more out of reference checks

Reference Check Questions You Should Always Ask (add more skills-based questions, based on the role you are recruiting for):

  1. How long have you known the applicant and what is your relationship to them?
  2. When and in what capacity did you work together?  
  3. What were their job responsibilities and salary?
  4. If they reported to you, please explain what it like was to manage them.
  5. What made them unique?
  6. What were their strengths?
  7. What were their weaknesses or areas that needed improvement?
  8. How would you describe their relationship with others at all levels in the organization?
  9. What was the applicant’s greatest accomplishment and why?
  10. How did the applicant deal with conflict?
  11. Why did they leave your company?
  12. Would you rehire them? Why or why not?
  13. What else should we know about the applicant that I haven’t asked?
  14. Considering the job we are interviewing them for, how would you describe the fit?
  15. How would you recommend we manage the applicant in this type of role?

Reference Check Do’s and Don’ts


    • Consider using a combination of peers, subordinates, and the obvious direct supervisors to gain different points of view.
    • Get consent from the candidate.
    • Be very friendly and find something in common with the reference; they are more likely to be genuine and vulnerable if you are.
    • Tell the reference who you are, build up your credibility, and emphasize the importance of the call.
    • Tell them who the applicant is and that you have their consent.
    • Remind them that what they say will be confidential to elicit more genuine responses (& make sure to keep it confidential).
    • Ask unbiased, open-ended questions. 
    • Pay close attention to the reference’s tone and enthusiasm in their responses. 
    • If you sense hesitation, probe deeper with linear follow up questions.
    • Be persistent if they are evading a question.
    • Take great notes.
    • Tell them more about the role at the end of the call, then discuss how they feel the role would or wouldn’t be a fit for the candidate.


    • Ask questions on a reference check that you are not allowed to ask in an interview.  i.e. Age, religion, marital status, disabilities, etc.
    • Lead the witness.  By this I mean leading the reference towards a set response with the way you phrase the question.
    • Answer questions for them or finish their sentences.
    • Cut them off or fly through questions quickly to “get it over with”.

Remember, this is your chance to gather as much information as possible before you commit to a hire.  Don’t miss your opportunity to make the most informed decision possible.  With this formula, reference checks become more meaningful rather than just a mandatory box to check.  Hire more wisely using this recipe for reference checking and get one step closer to Hire Wisdom.


Check out the rest of the series, Hire Wisdom: The 12 Keys to Successful HiringLearn more about Toronto Financial Services & Insurance Recruiter Ross Campbell and connect with him on LinkedIn.

IQ PARTNERS is an Executive Search & Recruitment firm with offices in Toronto, Montreal  & Vancouver. We help companies hire better, hire less & retain more. We have teams of specialist recruiters in Financial Services & Insurance, Marketing Communications & Media, Emerging Tech & Telecom, Consumer Goods & Retail, B2B & Industrial, Technology, Accounting & Finance, HR & Operations, Energy, Mining & Engineering, Life Sciences, and Construction, Property & Real Estate. IQ PARTNERS has its head office in Toronto and operates internationally via Aravati Global Search Network. Click here to view current job openings and to register with us.

Ross Campbell Toronto Recruiter

Ross Campbell

Ross Campbell is a Partner and Practice Lead, Financial Services & Insurance with IQ PARTNERS. Celebrating over 10 years of management consulting experience in executive search, recruitment, and training in Canadian financial services and insurance companies, Ross thrives on the belief that business can be done significantly better by investing in the right people.

Hire Better,
Hire Smarter
73.3% of our clients are repeat customers. They trust us to help them hire better.
Hire Better
The Smarter Way to Find Your Next Job
Because smart people make great companies.
Get Hired