Candidate Reference Checking Guide

Reference Checking Candidate Reference Checking Guide

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Candidate Reference Checking Guide

Reference Checking Candidate Reference Checking Guide

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Pre-Employment Assessment Tests

The #1 Reference You Must Get From Every Candidate

Checking references should be a crucial part of your assessment and screening strategy when evaluating candidates for a new hire. In fact, there are few things as important as being able to validate that your potential employee was a top achiever.

Although there are, of course, exceptions to this point, much research holds that one of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior. 

To that point, being able to check a candidate’s reference before hiring them to verify what kind of employee they were is sure helpful in the hiring process.

We mentioned earlier the possibility of the candidate’s BFF Charles also being his direct supervisor. While this isn’t often the case, a candidate’s direct supervisor is the #1 ideal person to contact when conducting an employment reference check.

It might seem equally beneficial to gather references from your candidates from their colleagues and other co-workers who can speak to specific traits, values, or how they worked with the team and their clients, but none are as telling and beneficial to your decision-making process as a reference from a previous, direct supervisor or manager. Personal references are typically less objective, anyway, and don’t offer the same insight as one from a direct supervisor.

Why You need to do Reference Checks

Perhaps the biggest source of friction is the time and effort required to do a reference check. A company looking to hire a candidate will need to make calls and send emails to former employers and other reference providers and wait for the follow-up.

The long cycle of calling, leaving voicemails, and following up takes a toll on both the hiring company but also the companies providing references.

Reference providers in particular have little incentive to act quickly, since helping former employees provides no benefit, and due to the common fears described above, they may actually perceive possible harm from providing negative information in response to reference check questions. 

Additionally, modern background checks involve online research to verify claims made by the candidate. Increasingly, the answers to many personal reference check questions (including off-limits questions) can be found through social media searches. Employers who perform social media searches have to avoid the appearance of bias when using this readily available information.

At the most basic level, a simple set of reference check questions can be used to confirm a candidate’s honesty. If the candidate believes with certainty that their future employer will actually be speaking with their references the candidate will be significantly more truthful during the interview process.

In a competitive job market, pressure is higher than ever to exaggerate or completely fabricate details on resumes, job applications, and interviews.

Because candidates know that the probability of a full professional reference check is low, there is little risk if candidates stretch details in their work history, even if the most cursory reference check questions would quickly reveal this dishonesty.

A small detail such as changing a job title or changing the start and end date of a job would likely go unnoticed, but a 5-minute call to the HR department of a candidate’s previous employer would quickly confirm or refute it.

Establishing a pattern of honesty or dishonesty at this stage of the process serves as a reliable indicator of future patterns of honesty once employed. An employee willing to lie on a resume or job application will likely be willing to lie to customers or superiors after hire.

Selecting the right personal reference check questions will also help you confirm that a potential employee has the right qualifications for the job. 

Although it is not an exact science, employment verification at least confirms that candidates actually performed work in roles comparable to the current job opening.

Confirming an applicant worked in a particular position at another company for a significant period of time gives you the confidence they were more likely to be a competent contributor at that company, therefore he or she can be reasonably expected to be competent at your company. 

In addition to confirming employment start and end dates and positions, it is possible, though not guaranteed, to get salary information. Base salary, bonus, and benefits information supplied by a former employer are invaluable when entering negotiations when an offer is made.

Keep in mind that some states such as California prohibit you from asking about past salary history or basing salary offers on past salary information. In the absence of objectively verified information from a neutral third party, employers are forced to rely on the word of candidates, who are motivated to present themselves in the most positive light.

Reference Hunter Infographic

An additional objective reference check you can perform is verifying educational credentials. Checking a degree is a basic check to see if the candidate possesses the basic skills required for the job. In some cases, a specific degree may be required, as in the case of medical professionals. Similarly, checking licenses and credentials is a low-threshold check to see if a candidate is qualified to work in jobs requiring professional licensing. Most professional licensing bodies will also provide information on disciplinary action against licensees that can help inform your decision to hire or not.

If the profession requires bonding or insurance such as liability or malpractice insurance, you can check prior claims to see if past behavior indicates the potential for future issues if employed.

Other areas to check are criminal history that may disqualify the candidate. Felony convictions may make insurance more expensive. A history of theft or violence may not be appropriate for employees who handle money or interact with customers. 

For example, a bad driving record may disqualify candidates for driving jobs. A credit check may show red flags such as high debt or defaults that may indicate a higher risk of embezzling while good credit shows organization and responsibility.

Caution should be taken when using criminal background and credit reporting information as there may be state or federal laws that limit the ways in which you can use this information to make hiring decisions.

Why Reference Checks Aren’t Done

By the 1970s the negligent hiring theory of liability was common practice. In the modern era, it is more important than ever to get hiring decisions right the first time because hiring the wrong person could lead to costly repeat candidate searches or liability issues later on.

Given this history, it seems almost inconceivable that employers would hire any candidate without a thorough reference check, and yet there is a common (albeit misguided) fear of doing reference checks.

Some employers fear that many reference check questions are possibly illegal in some way. While it is true that a combination of state and federal laws potentially limit the questions to ask a potential employee, this list is short and easy to manage.

For example, you can maintain a list of blacklisted reference questions or a precompiled reference check form with whitelisted questions that are sure to be safe.

Another deterrent to thorough reference checking is the cost involved. Checking references is a labor-intensive process, involving calls, emails, and potentially lengthy conversations with several people.

With an employee reference check and employment verification costing between $50 and $300 per candidate when using professional reference check services, it is not feasible to check every person who applies for a job. 

Meanwhile, with an average of more than five candidates interviewing for each job position filled, costs could easily add up. That is why typically only late-stage candidates are subjected to a thorough reference check.

Unfortunately, the later in the process you get, the fewer alternate candidates you have to choose from if a candidate doesn’t pan out due to issues revealed during the reference check process.

This could influence a company’s motivation to do the minimum possible check to maintain the appearance of thoroughness while rubber-stamping a favored candidate.

How to Ask Candidate’s for their References

When interviewing a candidate, asking them about their ability to get a reference from this person is key. It should be a part of your interview line of questioning. If they’re not able to get the reference or balk at the idea of asking their current or previous supervisor, it’s a potential red flag that you’ll want to consider and decide if you still want to proceed. If you’re looking for an all-inclusive guide on the subject, including questions to ask when checking references, how reference checks work, and how to actually check references, we’ve compiled a huge collection of resources for you here.

When to Check References

The best time to check candidate references is after you’re pretty serious about the candidate. Assuming you have already asked the candidate if they could get a reference and they expect that at some point this is a critical next step, there is no harm in reaching out to a candidate’s reference post in the first or second interview. 

Some employers prefer to check references right off the bat. If you have the bandwidth to do so, why not? As a best practice though, the tried and true method is to check references after you’ve met with a candidate a couple of times and are considering an offer as the next step, assuming all references come back positive.

How Many References Should You Check?

As mentioned above, the best source of a candidate reference is from a previous, direct supervisor. It really depends on the length of a candidate’s career and what type of role they will be filling in your organization, but as a whole, a good rule of thumb says that we should check references from at least the last three places of employment. 

If a candidate worked in their last position for 12 years, then maybe you’d check references from a couple of different supervisors who oversaw the candidate’s work while they promoted in their last role.

Conversely, if they worked at three different companies, then checking on each of these from their supervisor should suffice.

The Candidate Reference Check

The history of employer liability for the prior actions of employees stretches back to 1908 when the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company was sued after a worker’s prank caused the death of a coworker.

A shop apprentice named Hodge had a habit of playing pranks on coworkers using a compressed air hose in a dangerous manner. 

Management was aware of this behavior but did nothing to discipline him. 

One prank ended with the death of a coworker, John Ballard. Though in this case the prior actions also occurred in the workplace, it laid the groundwork for future expansion of employers’ liability for not doing thorough reference checks.

By 1951, case law had made it clear that employers have a duty to carefully screen potential employees for behavior patterns that put customers or the public at risk.

In Fleming v. Bronfin et al, a grocery delivery driver assaulted a customer after being hired without reference or background checks. The justification for holding the employer liable is that the simple act of asking the right employee reference questions would have revealed that he had a habit of working under the influence, putting customers at risk.

Types of Reference Checks

Assuming you pick the right reference check questions, they must be completely legal.

To be in compliance with relevant federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination, you must avoid asking questions that directly or indirectly elicit information about candidates that suggest the job decision will be made based on age, race, sexual orientation, ethnic background, religious beliefs, marital status, or socioeconomic status.

Even innocuous questions such as “Do you have a car?” or “Do you go to church on Sundays?” can be problematic.

The former suggests a bias based on socioeconomic status and should be worded, “Do you have access to a reliable source of transportation?” while the latter suggests religious bias and could be worded, “Are you able to work a schedule that includes Saturdays and Sundays?”

As long as you avoid this relatively short list of off-limits questions, you have quite a bit of flexibility in the reference check questions you ask.

Here is an overview of the types of reference checks employers can perform on candidates:

Employment Verification

Employers should contact companies to verify info, use W-2s or pay stubs if necessary, or fill in any gaps. Common data points include company name, employment start and end dates, position/job title, and salary.

Education and Credentials

Contact the school or institution to verify info and use the documentation provided by the candidate if necessary. Common data points include school or institution attended, dates of attendance, major or area of study, diploma, degree, or certificate awarded.

Professional License

Contact the governing body to verify license info. Common data points include the date of issue, date of expiration, continuing education compliance, disciplinary action, liability protection, bonding, and insurance.

Character and Professional Reference Check

Contact reference provider by phone or email to verify experience, major accomplishments, character and fit, hire/no hire recommendation.

Background Check

Typically background checks are handled by professional services that can search criminal records, including searches of misdemeanors, felonies, and driving records.

Additionally, some jobs require a credit check to determine a candidate’s trustworthiness when handling money. A common though controversial practice is to perform drug screens on potential candidates to determine the likelihood that they will use drugs on the job. 

For positions where health is a requirement, a health screen can be performed to determine if the candidate has the required immunizations to prevent the spread of infection in the workplace.

Lastly, it is a must that employers check that candidates are authorized to work, either through possession of a certain type of work visa, or appropriate immigration status.

A Reference Interview is a Recipe for Professional Reference Checks

The bottom line is that a thorough process of checking references takes time and effort to get right, but it is well worth it because it gives you the information you need to make the right hiring decision.

Instead of taking everything the candidate says at face value, checking references gives you an additional objective view of the candidate that is not colored by the candidate’s motivation to present himself in the best light. 

Moreover, the process provides employers with the assurance that they have done their due diligence in trying to screen out employees that will become problems or liabilities later on. To that end, the best way to approach professional reference checks is to approach them systematically.

  • Having a reference check form with structured reference check questions will help you streamline this process while collecting meaningful objective data.
  • Having these reference check questions prescripted will make sure you are not going into a reference check cold or unprepared.
  • Have the candidate set up the call with a former supervisor. You can ask this point blank during the reference interview. You simply ask the candidate if a former supervisor would be willing to give a reference. A “no” answer would be a big red flag, but a “yes” is the first step toward setting up the call.
  • The next step is to have the candidate reach out and schedule the call or provide you with information to schedule it.
  • Once you are on the call conducting the employee reference, make sure you follow a structured plan laid out of the reference check form to make sure you cover all the key reference check questions.
  • You’ll begin by establishing a rapport by introducing yourself and letting them know the reference will be confidential. Don’t launch right into an interrogation, but instead learn more about the company and transition into a softball question such as “tell me about working with so and so” to get them talking.
  • Then you can move on to more specific questions about attitude, skill set, motivation, character, and fit, thing to improve on, and the most important closer “would you hire this person again?”

By following a structured process to reference check calls, you make sure the conversation is short and informative, and that you get all the info you need without getting off track.

Great Questions to Ask Your Candidate’s References

So, you’ve obtained a candidate reference – now what? You’ll have to go on about this as smartly and efficiently as possible for a quick experience. For a complete list of questions to ask a reference, check out our article on the topic here!

There are several ways to go about setting this up, which includes:

  • Having your candidate coordinate communication with the reference, letting them know you’ll be in touch for a reference check.
  • Having your candidate schedule a call and confirm an appointment time between both parties (ideal).

At the most basic level, you want to verify employment dates and the job title(s) associated with a reference. 

Encouraging your candidate to be a part of this process also lends insight into their level of engagement and motivation to help make this a smooth transition.

Their input can support or contradict your impressions, in either case, you will gain the perspective of someone who is an outsider to your process but an insider when it comes to the candidate. Take this opportunity to ask questions, verify candidates’ statements, and gain additional insight for future interviews.

Occasionally, those charged with contacting candidates’ references are uncertain about which questions should be asked or how to elicit certain information. A simple question such as, “Was Candidate X a good employee?” might be all you need to pose.

However, it can be difficult for people to answer, emotions may be involved, and, of course, their workplace and expectations may be quite different than yours.

Before addressing talking to a reference, you have to make sure that you:

Are Prepared

Who was it that said, “Failing to plan is planning to fail?”  This quote is often attributed first to Benjamin Franklin and later to Winston Churchill.  Either way, it’s absolutely solid advice. Take the time to list out what you want to learn from the reference interview.  This is your one chance to hear firsthand what it was like working with the candidate. Don’t go in haphazardly or blind, which leads to our next point.

Ask the Right Questions

By now, we should all know that asking the right questions is critical to finding out what we want to know.  And since you’ve already followed the “be prepared” advice, you will automatically know that going into the reference interview with a solid list of questions in hand is the right move. 

To keep it high level, separate what you want to know into two main sections for the reference interview.

First, collect basic info that helps you establish dates of employment, job title, responsibilities held, and salary the candidate had. This should be straightforward and easy to accomplish.

Second, get into the types of questions that help you really get to know the candidate through the eyes of someone who worked with them.  These can include things like:

  • Tell me about their communication style.
  • How did they handle feedback, both positive and negative?
  • Would you rehire this person?

For a more comprehensive list, go here.  


Lots of people think they are pretty good listeners.  However, take the time to brush up on this important skill.  You just might be surprised to find you could use some pointers when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of it.  Being a good listener isn’t just about not talking when the other person speaks or nodding your head and saying “mm-hmm.”  A good listener does much more.  

During your reference interview, don’t interrupt or jump to conclusions while the other person is talking.  Do ask types of questions that clarify what they have shared or give them lots of options in how they can answer by asking open-ended questions.

Wrap Up

Being able to talk to a reference is practically a privilege when it comes to hiring great candidates.  You get the opportunity to talk one on one with someone who knows the candidate in a work environment really well.

Take the time to prepare (you can re-use this over and over again), ask the right questions, and listen really well, even if it takes a bit of time to brush up on your listening skills.  Lastly, these skills aren’t just for hiring, they work wonders in real life too.

When in doubt, here’s a useful format that can be applied to almost every reference meeting.

Format for Reference Checking

Build Rapport

Building rapport is an important part of any reference-checking process. During this stage, you will be reassuring them that everything you discuss is confidential and will not be shared with the candidate.

Validate the Reference

You want to gather some information about who you’re speaking with, including the reference’s name, proper spelling and pronunciation, and their title or position. Then you might ask them a bit about what they do within the company to learn about their position more.

The goal is to understand and verify that this person is truly in a position to be considered a good reference and isn’t just the candidate’s buddy or colleague.

Bob Nicoson, VP and chief HR officer at Constant Contact, suggests that social media helps play a part in understanding how valid references are, as it’s easy to check a site such as LinkedIn and verify contact within the candidate’s company.

Direct supervisors and managers are the best types of reference because they can speak to the true abilities and competencies of a candidate in a work environment that is similar or likely to demand the same kind of abilities as their previous role. This allows you, as the new employer, to gauge whether the candidate will be able to “cut it” in your organization.

You might want to include here a bit about your company, the position you are considering this candidate for, and any other aspects of your business the reference may find useful.

In Your Experience…

One of my favorite questions to ask references is “what was your experience working with this candidate?” This free-form question allows the reference to speak freely about their own experiences and perspective and is geared to put the reference at ease.

Check Context

Find out in what capacity they managed or supervised your candidate. Were there others on the team as well or just the candidate? Were other managers involved?

Learn from the reference’s perspective what the candidate’s role was and what they did. Then you are able to compare what the candidate told you in their interview with the reference’s perspective.

Asking “The Question”

Outlined by Bradford Smart in his book Topgrading is perhaps one of the most important questions involved in a reference check. The question goes like this:

“What would you rate this candidate on a scale of 1-10? What could they do/could have done to get to a (the next highest number)?”

Identify Performance

What were the candidate’s performance expectations and how did the company or manager determine the candidate was meeting expectations and doing a good job? How did this candidate perform in relation to other employees? Did they exceed expectations?

  • Strengths and Weaknesses: From the reference’s perspective, what were the candidate’s greatest strengths and weaknesses? Did they work well with other people or were best left alone to get their work done?
  • Feedback: How was this candidate receiving and giving feedback? What was their communication style?

The Best Reference Checking Questions:

  • Would you hire this employee again?
  • What were his/her responsibilities at your company?
  • Were there any problems with absences or tardiness?
  • Was this employee a team player?
  • Were they able to complete tasks individually?
  • How many employees work for your company (or local office, factory, etc.)?
  • What was the work environment like?
  • What would you say were this person’s best qualities?
  • Did you find that their skills developed over time?
  • How well was he/she able to (select a job responsibility or skill cited by candidate)?
  • Do you think they would be able to (describe an important aspect of the new position)?
  • Was there any area that you wanted them to improve on?
  • How did they generally respond to criticism and suggestions?
  • Do you know anything about their work prior to joining your company?

Many employers require three references, but the exact number is at your discretion. The same is the case for the category of reference and means and contact. Professional references are certainly the most reliable, but for certain fields and positions, the reference of a professor or similar authority may be acceptable.

Be wary of candidates who are unprepared to give references, offer excuses for why they cannot be contacted, or try to use only personal acquaintances. If a candidate cannot provide a reference from their direct supervisors then you have a major red flag and it is likely this person is an underachiever.

The best way to contact references is by phone. This will allow you to immediately ask questions and it will be much easier to detect hesitation or uncertainty.

However, as we all know, supervisors and coworkers alike may be busy and unable to get back to you. In this case, it is advantageous to have an e-mail address, but phone numbers and addresses are still the standard forms of contact that employees will give.

Note that some employers are unwilling or unable to divulge more information than simply verifying names, dates, and possibly the circumstances under which the employee left.

This information is vital, but ideally, the candidate will supply at least one reference who is able to share more. In most cases, there are no legal reasons that opinions may not be shared, so long as it is not done maliciously.

One thought I always keep in mind is that you are always going to be sorely disappointed when you lose one of your star employees, but are you going to hold a grudge? No. It is hard for a supervisor to think poorly of their best people.

With this in mind, no matter the company policy, a candidate who cannot provide a reference from all of their past supervisors is likely to NOT be a top performer. These people should be elated to talk about how great this person was, if they are not there is almost always a problem.

Overall Recommendation

We always want to ask the reference if there is anything else they would add to the conversation or if there is something they want us to know that we haven’t yet discussed.

Before finishing, ask if they would recommend this candidate for a job, and especially the job you’ve described, based on their experience working with them. Would the reference rehire this candidate? Why or why not?


It is important to thank the reference for their time because they are doing you a favor by providing feedback that will be helpful in your hiring process. Give respect, and respect shall be given!

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