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How to properly conduct reference checks when hiring

You’ve found a compelling candidate for an open position. Now it’s time to check references.

The interviews went well, and their resume is solid. But people can be well prepped for the interview, and resumes can be expertly polished. A reference check is a powerful tool to better understand the candidate and make the best hiring decision.

Done well it can save time and money. Done poorly it can be costly and necessitate starting the hiring process all over again.

This blog covers:

  • The difference between a reference check and a background check
  • Reference check best practices
  • How to craft reference check questions
  • 4 risks and how to avoid them

Reference checks versus background checks

While reference checks and background checks are both important steps in the hiring process, they’re fundamentally different.

Reference checks can be conducted by anyone to gain a clearer picture of the candidate’s ethics, virtues, personality and ability to work well with others.

A background check company can obtain information from various licensing agencies, counties and states. Background checks commonly include a reference check that is often limited to the candidate’s dates of employment and other factual information. It typically takes about three to five business days.

Reference check best practices

Ask the candidate for a minimum of three professional references with all relevant contact information.

Ideally, the references are the candidate’s former supervisors or worked with them in a supervisory role. If the applicant is hesitant to use a reference from their current place of employment, ask for references from previous jobs.

Contact each reference, let them know you have the candidate’s permission for the call and set up a verbal interview.

Some reference call tips:

  • An email is insufficient for interview purposes. You’ll need more than a sentence or two from the reference to get a better idea of the candidate’s work ethic, character and skills.
  • Consider providing a basic list of questions (or types of questions) that you plan to ask about the candidate so that the reference has time to gather their thoughts.
  • Provide a brief job description to the reference so that they’ll know what the position requires, what you’re looking for and how the candidate might perform in the job.
  • Be respectful of the reference’s time. If you told them you’d like 15 minutes, make sure it’s 15 minutes.

Use standardized set of open-ended questions

Your questions should help you obtain truthful information about the candidate in order to make best hiring decision.

Use the job description to craft questions that get to the heart of the candidate’s work ethic, skills, experience and character.

When interviewing the reference, have a conversation. Invite them to move beyond simple, pat answers. For instance, provide a scenario and ask how the candidate reacted in the situation.

A standardized set of questions can be especially helpful if you’re considering multiple candidates for the role.

11 common general information reference check questions

Below is a set of sample questions that you might use during a reference check call.

Note that the first questions are simpler and more straightforward. You want to ease the reference into the conversation and introduce more difficult questions later.

Most of the questions are open ended. If you find yourself asking a yes-no question, be sure to follow up by asking “why?”

The best way to end your call is to ask the reference if there’s anything else you should know about the candidate. These catch-all type questions can give the reference an opportunity to discuss a topic that you may not have thought about.

Here are 11 sample reference check questions:

  1. How long have you known the candidate?
  2. In what capacity do you know them?
  3. How would you describe their overall job performance in the time that you knew them?
  4. What was it like to supervise them?
  5. What was unique about them that gave them value to your team?
  6. Were there any strengths that they possessed that caused them to stand out from other members of your team?
  7. Do you remember any weak areas with which you were working to help the candidate improve? Can you tell me about that?
  8. Do you recall a time that you had to discipline the candidate? If yes, what were the circumstances?
  9. Do you think that the candidate is appropriate for the job that I described to you? What’s your rationale?
  10. If given the opportunity, would you consider rehiring them?
  11. What else should I know about the candidate?

4 risks to consider (and how to avoid them)

With anything, there are inherent risks to consider when conducting reference checks. Keep these four in mind when preparing and conducting your call.

  1. Keep the line of questioning legal and job related to help keep the reference from making potentially libelous statements. Get an HR professional’s advice if you’re not sure. It’s always wise to keep detailed notes.

  2. Avoid leading questions or statements to get a response that will fit what you may be seeking.

  3. What you can’t ask can vary from state to state and even county to county. There are safeguards that protect job seekers.

    For instance, in California, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and a few other states you can’t ask a reference about salary history or things related to a potential criminal record.
  4. Beware of the potential for people who are listed as references who have been coached and planted by the candidate, also known as fake references.

    If the references provide answers that contradict one another, consider doing at least one more check to see if you can determine a pattern.

Bottom line

Reference checks can help you uncover additional information about the candidate. However, it’s just one aspect of an effective recruitment strategy.

If you’d like to learn more about how to find the best employees, download and read our complimentary magazine: The Insperity guide to attract, retain recruit and hire talent.