20 Important Reference Check Questions to Ask in Canada

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20 Important Reference Check Questions to Ask in Canada

Ever felt that something was off about one of your candidates when conducting a job interview? Even despite their glowing CV?

Checking the references provided by them first can help keep this from happening, and can help save you time and resources.

A reference check is simple — it confirms the information the candidate provided when applying for the position.

It involves asking about the applicant’s employment history, and uses this to consider if the candidate will be a good fit for the role on offer.

Hiring the wrong employee could negatively affect your organization through poor job performance, impaired corporate image, and lost revenue.

This is why candidates in the final selection process for employment are the focus of reference checks — they can unmask anything unfavourable the candidate might be hiding and prevent a wrong hiring decision.

We’ll give you the vital reference check questions to ask in Canada. They’ll help you get the information you need to make the best choice for employment.

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Why Reference Check?

There are many reasons employers need to conduct a reference check on the candidates for any job position:

  • To confirm the candidate’s references
  • To get a good view of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses
  • As an opportunity to assess their work ethic, skill sets, communication style, attitude, and response to pressure
  • To identify areas where the candidate will need extra training
  • To validate their past job experience, job titles, accomplishments, and qualifications
  • To get the opinion of past job performances through their former superiors and colleagues
  • To assess the candidate’s working relationship with their previous co-workers and managers
  • To reveal unknown behaviours that could affect the candidate’s job performance
  • To dissuade dishonest candidates from applying
  • To fill in gaps in the candidate’s employment background
  • To make an effective hiring decision

However, employers need to ensure that this procedure is carried out within the provisions of the law.

Laws Governing Reference Checking in Canada

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Privacy laws govern background checks and checking references in Canada. These include the Privacy Act and PIPEDA (Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act) at the federal level, but similar laws also exist at the provincial level.

These laws regulate an organization’s right to information received during reference checks. Under them, employment candidates have to provide written consent to have this procedure conducted by those looking to hire them, and to give the collected information to a third party. This is to prevent its abuse and misuse.

Organizations have to store the information from the reference checks for at least a year. And, on top of this, the applicant should have the opportunity to access their own information.

Human Rights legislation in Canada also has an impact on reference checking. The Canadian Human Rights Act, and provincial and territorial human rights laws, prohibit asking questions in the following areas during an interview or reference check.

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Marital status
  • Family status
  • Disability
  • Genetics
  • Criminal records

Asking questions in these areas could be discriminatory against the candidate and affect the hiring process. Organizations that don’t hire the applicant could potentially get into trouble with the law due to the belief they weren’t employed based on one of the listed areas.

Another area to avoid asking about during a reference check is the applicant’s salary history — it can be a competitive edge during the hiring process, and, while it’s legal, Canadian authorities are discouraging this practice through legislation against it.

Note: Be careful about a non-job-related discussion during the reference check, as they can also influence your decision on hiring an applicant.

It’s best not to make any hiring decisions until after the reference checks on all the applicants have been completed to prevent repercussions.

The Right Way to Conduct Reference Checks

Reference checks have significant weight during an organization’s hiring decision.

A recent study in the US states that, on average, managers conducting a reference check removed a third of the candidates in the running for a job after discovering unfavourable facts about them.

Performing reference checking requires structure to be effective — a standard procedure must be available, including a set of questions to ask. This will ensure similar treatment of each candidate and an effective hiring decision.

The below form is a good example:

Employee Reference Check Form
Image courtesy

This should help everything run smoothly when contacting the references. Though, before you do, make sure you’re well prepared.

When the Candidate Applies

Each candidate must provide the right references — professional colleagues they worked with — during the employment application process. At least three former co-workers and supervisors are typically adequate for this purpose.

However, there might be a situation where the candidate is applying for their first job, as is often the case with fresh college graduates. In this instance, their former lecturers and professors can be a good source of information.

Ask for the applicant’s consent before conducting a check on their references, and get them to sign a form confirming it during the application process.

Also, make sure the candidate provides references willing to stand for them. This should be stated when advertising the vacancy, as it will make the process easier and help you avoid back-door reference checking — getting information about the candidate from professional colleagues who are not listed as references.

Preparation

Candidates in the final stage of the employment process are typically the focus of reference checks, but some organizations do this in the early stages.

This removes dishonest applicants who provided false information on their applications.

Contact each of the references by phone or email. Start with a supervisory manager before contacting others, and introduce yourself and your organization.

Inform the supervisory manager about the candidate and the position they are vying for.

Confirm if the manager agreed to be a reference for the applicant. Inform them that your organization wants to hire the candidate, and that you need to verify their reliability by conducting a reference check. Let the manager know about the applicant consenting to the procedure.

Ask if the reference wants to take part in the check. If they agree to it, schedule a time convenient for them for the phone interview. Alternatively, they can agree to have the interview done on the spot.

The reference also has the option of getting the questions through email, as they can respond at their convenience.

If you schedule a check, send the reference a form that has the questions you’ll ask during the interview. This will give them enough time to prepare their responses to the questions.

There might be occasions where the reference check form has to go through modifications before sending it out, as some positions have special criteria. For example, managerial positions — with these, you’ll need to ask about the candidate’s qualifications and leadership abilities.

Reference Check Day

Confirm the schedule with the reference before the day of the interview. If they can’t make it, let them give you another time they’re available. Their position will make them busy, so consider this when rescheduling.

On the day itself, let them know the time it’ll take for the interview. Ten minutes is long enough for conducting the reference check. Assure them of the confidentiality of their views, and make it clear you will take them as individual opinions rather than as the opinions of their organization.

Keep the reference relaxed and comfortable during the process, and avoid negative language or situations that will make them uneasy. Let it be more of a conversation, as this will help them reveal as much as possible.

Focus on the applicant’s performance in their previous position. Ask open-ended, but simple questions so that they can be answered explicitly. If there are areas that need elaboration, ask for it.

Take notes, and record the reference’s views and examples of the candidate’s work behaviour. These should be used by your organization when deciding on hiring the applicant.

The way the reference answers a question can be revealing, and can say much about the candidate, either negatively or positively. But, be careful about how much weight you assign to it during your assessment.

Now that you’re prepared for your reference check, let’s get to the main crux of the matter.

Reference Check Questions to Ask

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The main purpose of checking references is to have adequate information on the applicant. You want to find a good fit for the position on offer, and this can help.

The hiring manager has to create the right questions for this purpose, and should also screen the applicants.

However, there is a limit to the number of questions one can ask during a reference check, due to time constraints. To aid with this, we’ve selected the most important ones to inquire about.

They should enable you to get the information you need to help in determining the hiring of the applicant.

Verification Questions

These questions verify the accuracy of the information the candidate provided when applying.

How Well Do You Know the Candidate?

The reference should be able to tell what they know about the candidate, and should also be able to describe their work personality.

The answer will help establish the relationship between the reference and the candidate, and will also verify the information provided by the latter during the application process.

How Long Did You Work With the Candidate?

The reference should provide the amount of time they worked with the candidate, as this will give an insight into how well they know them. The longer the time, the more they are likely to know.

It’s also possible to use this answer to verify the candidate’s employment start and end dates when confirming their information.

Employment History

These questions look at the details of the previous jobs the applicant held.

What Was the Candidate’s Job Title?

The reference should establish the role the candidate had in their organization. Their answers will reveal if they have the requisite qualifications for your job offer.

What Were the Candidate’s Responsibilities?

This is a critical question to ask when checking references — getting to know the responsibilities the candidate handled should confirm if they can perform the new job they are being considered for.

Did the Candidate Receive a Promotion or Change Roles?

This shows if the applicant had a good enough job performance to justify a promotion, and also demonstrates their work ethic and drive.

However, you shouldn’t be quick to dismiss your candidate if the reverse is the case. Get the reference’s view on this issue — some factors beyond job performance might have prevented their promotion, and can even be a major reason why they’re seeking employment at your organization.

How Was the Candidate’s Performance?

A supervisor reference should be able to give a review of how well the candidate performed at their job.

A very good performance is likely to be remembered, and enthusiasm will show in the reference’s voice. Poor performance can also stand out, but an average job performance is likely to be hardly noticed.

The answers will be a big determinant about hiring the candidate.

What Made the Candidate Leave?

This answer from the reference can play a big part in hiring the applicant.

If low performance on the job was a major reason for the exit, that is a red flag. But, it’s also possible that the candidate left the company to try something new or to seek a better job package.

Leaving on good or bad terms also speaks volumes — either way, the reason has to be similar to the one the candidate recorded on their application. If it doesn’t, it can be a reflection of their poor morals.

Candidate’s Skill Sets

These questions gauge the applicant’s skills and knowledge, and also measure their strengths and weaknesses.

What Are the Candidate’s Strengths?

The reference should give the candidate’s skills and knowledge — their strongest points. Let them provide examples where the candidate showcased these strengths, and consider how they can benefit your organization’s productivity.

What Are the Candidate’s Weaknesses?

Getting the applicant’s weakness is also necessary. You can place these inverse qualities against their strengths.

How they compare against each other can play a part in determining if the applicant will be a good hire.

How Do You Think the Candidate Can Improve?

Having worked with the candidate in the past, the reference should know the areas where they need to improve. They might also know the best way for the applicant to accomplish this. If the candidate is worth it, your organization can help with their development.

Job Performance

This section measures the candidate’s competency for the job. This part is vital in reference checks, and examples of the candidate’s work have to be available to prove this point.

In What Capacity Did the Candidate’s Competency Contribute to Your Organization?

Ask the reference to give detailed evidence of one or two projects where the candidate played a pivotal role through their work. There should be a description of the scenario, project goals, and the impact they made.

This evidence can be crucial in determining if hiring the candidate will be worth it, and is essential for jobs with special criteria, like mechanical engineering or medical related fields.

Employee Engagement

These questions seek the best way to engage the applicant at the workplace. This aspect is crucial to getting the best out of them when they are under your employment.

What Motivates the Candidate?

Knowledge of the applicant’s job motivation will provide the best way to engage them, and can be a factor in improving your organization’s productivity.

What is the Candidate’s Communication Style?

Ask the reference how the applicant conveys their thoughts to their colleagues, and confirm how they communicated with their superiors. It will give an idea of how they will fit into your organization’s corporate culture.

What is an Example of the Candidate Resolving a Conflict or Problem?

The answer from the reference will let you know how good the applicant is at problem resolution, and can tell you how they cope with work pressure.

Working Relationships

Inquiries into this aspect look at how the applicant will work with others.

How Was Your Working Relationship With the Candidate?

The reference’s working experience with the candidate can be revealing. It will predict how they will function with others at your organization.

Does the Candidate Like Working Solo or in Teams?

Some people prefer to work with others, some function better when working alone, and some can work both ways.

Consider your organization’s corporate culture and if the candidate can flourish within it.

Leadership Qualities

This aspect doesn’t have to apply only to hiring managers — employees with leadership qualities are likely to be more engaged and productive in the workplace.

It’s also an opportunity to groom future leaders for your organization.

What is the Candidate’s Leadership Style?

A description of their managerial style will give an insight into if the applicant will be successful for that type of position at your organization. The experience of coworkers in teams or units led by the applicant can also be useful.

Does the Candidate Have Leadership Potential?

This applies to applicants for non-managerial positions. If the candidate has any leadership traits, the reference is likely to have noticed them.

There’s also the chance that the candidate has leadership ambitions — this shows someone who’s motivated and willing to go the extra mile.

When Has the Candidate Demonstrated Leadership Potential?

The examples provided by the reference should be on an organizational project where the applicant had an impact by leading an initiative or course of action. This can be evidence of the applicant’s leadership potential.

Closing Questions

These questions are for getting more information, and are also a way to end the reference checking on a good note.

Would You Rehire the Candidate if Given the Opportunity?

The reference’s answer to this question will reveal much about the candidate. If they’re enthusiastic about rehiring the candidate, it’s a good sign that you’ve found the right person to fill the vacant position in your organization.

Is the Candidate a Good Fit for the Job Being Offered?

Having worked with the candidate before, it is highly likely the reference will know if they can thrive in the position on offer at your organization.

So, there you have it. You now know how to get the information you need through your reference check.

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