Reference Checking: The Ultimate Guide

reference checking

Liz Strikwerda

Content strategist and corporate blogger (2000+ posts). Her work has been featured on G2's Learning Hub, Human Resources Today, Better Buys and over 500 business websites. She plays bluegrass mandolin and enjoys sailing her catamaran and hiking in the red rock wilderness of southern Utah. Connect with me on LinkedIn

Hiring and Applicant Tracking

Professional recruiters understand the importance of reference checking. Let’s talk about the ins and outs of this common vetting process.

Why do you check an applicant’s references? An obvious answer is ‘To find out if they lied on their application.’

While this is one reason to check references, the practice has broader purposes.

3 Reasons to Check References

  1. To confirm a hiring decision after an applicant is chosen
  2. To help differentiate between two seemingly equally-qualified applicants
  3. To narrow the candidate pool early in the hiring process

What Information Can a Reference Check Provide?

  • Verification of hard and soft skills
  • Verification of resume integrity
  • Red flags that disqualify the candidate

Laws and Policies That Affect Reference Checking

Federal law prevents an employer from giving a negative or false employment reference (or refuse to give a reference) because of

  • race
  • color
  • religion
  • sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy)
    national origin
  • age (40 or older)
  • disability
  • genetic information

Why Many Employers Limit the Information They Disclose

A common misconception is that federal law prohibits an employer from disclosing anything beyond the basics. Namely, job title, dates of employment, and salary. In the past several decades, these policies have become very common. The goal is to protect the company from being sued for defamation.

Defamation vs. Negligent Referral

But here’s the flip side: what if the former employee is a significant risk to any future employer? What if they were violent? In the healthcare industry, gross incompetence could endanger patients.

Courts are ruling that an employer can’t only be concerned about their own legal exposure. Negligent referral judgments affirm an employer’s ethical responsibility to protect innocent third parties and public safety in general.

What does this mean for you when you check references? Hopefully, nothing truly egregious will be withheld.

State and Local Laws

Before writing your reference check questions, make sure you understand state laws that limit what employers can disclose. In the past few years, several states and some cities have enacted new laws that affect what companies can disclose during an employment reference check.

Don’t eliminate reference checks just because a law or policy limits what you can ask or what a referral can answer. Think like a prosecutor in a legal trial. An astute litigator can uncover critical information regardless of who brought the witness. In a similar way, a skilled recruiter can elicit helpful information from any reference.

At What Point in the Recruiting Process Should I Check References?

The job role and industry practices influence the timing. If you do high-volume hiring and field hundreds of applications, there are advantages to checking references before the interview stage. It will help you whittle down the applicant pool early in the process.

It may be more helpful to check references after first round interviews. If the interview reveals a potential issue, the recruiter can seek clarification when they talk to the candidate’s references.

For higher level positions, it’s customary in most industries to delay reference checks until the final stages. This could be immediately prior to the formal job offer. Some companies don’t check references until after a conditional offer has been extended.

Examples of Reference Check Questions

Here are questions used by many employers. As mentioned previously, some state laws and company policies affect whether or not any specific question can be asked or answered. With that caveat, a good rule of thumb is to start general and get more specific with each question.

1. What Is Your Relationship With The Job Applicant?

You have to establish the overall context in the beginning. The reference is not always a former employer. It might be a former colleague, manager, or business owner. Applicants just out of college may use professors and intern supervisors.

2. What Was The Applicant’s Job Title And Responsibilities?

This is basic information on which everything else is based.

3. What Was It Like To Work With The Applicant?

This open-ended question can reveal positive and negative qualities not listed on the resume.

4. How Can I Help The Candidate Be Successful?

5. What Are The Candidate’s Strengths And Weaknesses?

6. Would You Re-Hire this Employee If You Had The Chance?

7. Is This Applicant A Good Fit For The Job Position?

8. What Skills Would Help The Applicant Progress To Higher Positions?

9. Is There Anything Else I Need To Know?

Do’s and Don’ts of Reference Checking

  • Do speak to the referral with a telephone call if possible.
  • Do set a positive tone from the outset.
  • Do follow local, state, and federal laws.
  • Do ask the same reference questions for all job applicants.
  • Do notify the applicant that you will be contacting the references.
  • Do document who you talked with and what information was provided.
  • Do be upfront with the reference about why you are contacting them.
  • Do understand your state or local laws about salary history questions.
  • Don’t rush the call.
  • Don’t ask leading questions.
  • Don’t ask for protected class information (race, religion, gender, etc.)
  • Don’t contact people without the candidate’s consent.
  • Don’t assign reference checking to a hiring team member who doesn’t understand the job role.

Asking About Reference Checking in the Interview

Some recruiters ask the applicant what they believe a referral would say during the interview. The interviewer would say something like this: ‘If I talked to your former supervisor and asked them how you performed, what would they say?’

This type of question can prompt a candidate to be more candid about their work history and skills. It can also help the interviewer know what to pay attention to when they talk to the referral.

Reference Checks In ApplicantStack

ApplicantStack hiring software simplifies the reference check process. Add reference fields to the application so you don’t have to ask for references separately. If you use reference checks to narrow the pool early in the process, collecting them in the application allows you to start them without delay.

Some referrals prefer responding through email instead of a phone call. ApplicantStack has reference email templates that make this process quick and easy. Tailor your referral questions to local laws, company policies, and the job position.

Simplify HR management today.

Simplify HR management today.

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