Reference Checking

Reference checking is one of the most important steps in the hiring process because it’s usually the only part of the process that involves people other than the candidate [who] can offer pointed, behavioral-specific feedback.

-Ray Bixler, CEO of SkillSurvey

Ugh why do we still check references? For some it feels like an annoying formality, the candidate can convince their references to lie anyways, right? Well, references aren’t dead yet, and we’re here to chat about reference checks and how to use them effectively to improve your selection process.

Isn’t illegal for a former employer to give a bad reference, therefore why is it even worth checking references?

This is a myth. It is generally OK for employers to be truthful during a reference check and can give factual information based on documented performance and employment history. This includes if someone was fired, had performance issues, attendance issues, stole from the company, etc.

If an employer gave a reference based on opinion or protected class info this obviously is not OK. Knowingly or recklessly providing false or misleading information or acting with malicious intent can lead to defamation lawsuits. For more information, you can visit for more info.

Having said that, you may find that many Managers and HR departments are not willing to share employment information for past employees. When you encounter this, circle back to the candidate and ask them to provide references that are able to answer reference check questions.

When should you conduct a reference check?

So that no one’s time is wasted, it’s best to make a job offer to your top candidate, contingent upon a satisfactory reference check. If you have two top candidates you can’t choose from, the reference check may be the information that sets one candidate apart from the other.

In general, it’s always courteous to give a candidate the heads up you’re going to call their references. This allows them to notify their references to be available for your call and ensure’s there’s no surprises.

What Candidates Should You Check References For?

  1. Candidates in the final stages of the selection process.
  2. Candidates who have never worked for the company before
  3. Rehires under the following conditions: 
    1. There has been a break in service more than a year
    2. They are being considered for a new role, promotion or department
    3. If the conditions of the job have significantly changed (i.e. COVID

Who makes a good reference? 

  • The candidate’s most recent employer(s), try to go back 3-5 years. Immediate supervisors and colleagues are ideal. Human Resources departments may only give a verification of dates worked. 
  • Relevant previous workplaces: for example, if the candidate has been working as a river guide and taking a break from their career as an electrician, have the candidate provide a reference who can speak to their relevant electrician work
  • If the candidate does not provide relevant references, it’s OK to ask them for better references.

What if they don’t have work experience? 

Contact teachers, coaches, community members who have overseen their work as a volunteer, student, etc. Do not rely on friends and family for references.

Reference Checking Fundamentals

  • References can provide detail and deeper verification to topics you are unsure of or have yellow flags from the interview. Be sure to focus on those areas needing to be addressed.
  • Standardize your Reference Check Questions
    • questions must relate directly to the position being filled, which can include someone’s ability to work on a team, show up on time, learn new things, as well as technical aspects of the job.
    • Have a few stock questions that you ask consistently; when you deviate from these, be sure you can give a legitimate reason why (see yellow flag comment above)
    • Be aware that the same discrimination laws apply to reference checking
  • Pay attention to what former supervisors and colleagues neglect to say. If the answers are general and not very positive, or if they are neutral, this could indicate that the employee’s performance was mediocre
  • Ask behavioral based, open ended questions; avoid “yes or no” questions unless that is all they will answer.

Can I contact references that the candidate did NOT supply? 

YES, with care.  Some best practices: 

  • Ask the candidate if it’s OK to contact their current employer. If they say no you can ask why and this answer will often be enlightening. Respect their wishes if they do not want their current employer to be contacted.
  • If the supplied references were not satisfactory, or not relevant to the job the candidate is being considered for, or the references cannot be contacted, you can request the candidate provide additional references.
  • You might know someone who could provide trusted info on the candidate, weather that’s another business owner or a connection within your industry. These references are highly valuable, but be sure to be discreet, stay professional, and know you are still responsible for assessing the information you receive and ensuring confidentiality for the candidate.

Questions to Ask

  • First ask the reference what their relationship was/is to the candidate. Did the manager you are speaking supervise the candidate? Or is it their best friend who just got promoted to manager?
  • Ask behavioral-based, open-ended questions such as “How would you describe Jane’s performance?” Avoid yes-or-no queries like, “Was Jane a good worker?”
  • Ask for specific examples, “Can you tell me about a time when Jane worked through a conflict with a co-worker?”

Common questions you can use: 

  • What were the individual’s job responsibilities? How much of “X” did they really do?
  • Was the individual successful in his or her role at your organization? Why or why not?
  • What was it like to supervise the person? How did they respond to feedback?
  • How did they contribute to the team? Did they cause or dissolve drama? Did they complain or solve problems?
  • What unique skills/character traits did the individual bring to your organization?
  • What were his or her strengths? What were his or her weaknesses or areas that needed improvement? Use this one (and others like it) to compare to the candidate’s answers to the same questions.
  • Was the person ever disciplined, and what were the circumstances?
  • Why did the person leave your organization?
  • Would you rehire the person? Why or why not?
  • What do I need to be aware of to create an environment that will help them succeed? This is great for someone you are likely to hire, as it gives you info on how to flex your leadership style to best serve them. 

Can I circle back to the candidate after checking references?

Absolutely. If the reference check revealed information or facts you want to clarify with the candidate or find out more information you should absolutely have a follow-up with the candidate. Typically this is done on phone or in-person.

If a reference shared information about the candidate that disqualifies the candidate or suggests the candidate has had a poor employment record, be sure to keep your source as confidential as possible. “Thanks for interviewing with us, we have decided to move forward with other candidates at this time and we will no longer be considering you for this position. We wish you the best of luck in your job search,” is all they need to know.


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