Reference Checking: How HR Experts Do It

See the reference checking method that predicted productivity for 25,000 new hires.

Reference checking has been standard hiring practice for decades. Yet it’s tragically misunderstood. Many HR teams treat it like a check-the-box exercise — something you only do to ease your mind and make sure you haven’t hired the next Ted Bundy.


Reference checking is vital to hiring success. And while it may feel like a chore, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, getting great references is shockingly simple. Learn the secret, and your organization will be packed to the seams with exceptional talent.

Below, you’ll get a detailed look into the pros and cons of reference checking, the science, and the one (and only) way to do it well. You’ll also get 20 reference-checking questions you can use to make hire only high-quality team players from now on.


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What Is a Reference Check?

A reference check is a process where a hiring manager contacts someone familiar with a candidate to verify information about skill set, work ethic, and past performance. They can be friends or co-workers, but one type of reference is particularly effective: a current or past direct supervisor.


Only direct supervisors provide real insights into the candidate’s ability.

Does Reference Checking Work?

Done the right way, referencing checks are the most useful predictor of job performance. While reference checks get a bad rap for reliability, research shows that references from past direct supervisors create exceptionally reliable predictions of future job performance in a candidate.

The proof:

What does it say about a candidate who is unable to get their past supervisors to say great things about them, over and over again? If none of an applicant’s past three or four bosses are willing to go to bat for them, there’s a deeply problematic trend occurring here.

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Benefits of Reference Checking

Reference checks are free, easy to do, and take less time than a third or fourth interview. They’re the best way to find the perfect new hire every time. Here’s a list of reference-checking benefits:

Predict Job Performance

By conducting reference checks with previous direct supervisors, you gain critical insights into the strengths and weaknesses of your candidates. At the same time, you drastically cut the risk of collecting falsified information from a misleading interviewee.

As Effective as Referrals

According to a joint study between Yale, UC Berkeley, and the University of Minnesota, referred workers are far more likely to succeed in their roles. A reference from a direct supervisor is a high-quality referral.

Improve Retention

The same Yale study showed that referred job candidates outperform non-referred applicants in another area: retention. A job applicant referred to your company from a past direct supervisor will be more likely to stay in the job, lowering the costs associated with re-hiring and boosting productivity.

Lower Company Risk

Reference checks don’t just help you identify best-fit candidates who’ll work harder and stay longer; they also protect your organization from lawsuits tied to negligent hiring.

When to Check References

Check for references is early in the interview process — ideally after the first interview, or at least after the second. The sooner you can verify a candidate’s references, the less time you’ll spend hiring, and the easier you’ll flag bad candidates and home in on great ones.

How to Check References

The right way for employers to check references is so simple and so packed with genius that once you learn it, you’ll A) never do it any other way and B) wonder how you ever hired an employee without it.

The best reference checking method is based on the idea that:

  1. Great employees leave a great reputation behind
  2. Managers like great employees
  3. Managers want to help great employees
  4. Managers are often happy to provide an off-the-record personal reference.

Yet so many employers get this wrong.

Use the reference checking steps below, and you’ll stop collecting useless references. You’ll also start seeing exactly how each new hire will work out — before you hire them.

1. Ask the Candidate for References

During the first interview, ask the candidate who their direct supervisor was at each of their last three or four jobs.

For more experienced candidates, go back 10-15 years. (If they’ve had more than three previous employers in 10 years, you already have a big problem.) For less experienced candidates, ask for supervisors from starter jobs.

Here’s how:

Reference Check Template: Asking for References

Interviewer: When you worked at the previous company, who did you report to?

Candidate: John Brown.

Interviewer: What was John’s role in the company?

Candidate: He was the Director of Client Services.

Interviewer: (Ask yourself, is this a credible person to speak with?)

2. Ask Them To Set Up the Calls

It can feel awkward to cold-call someone’s past supervisor. We’ve found it works best to have the candidate set up the reference checking call for you. That gets you over the procrastination hump and into what counts — checking past performance. Plus, it can save days of your time.

Reference Check Template: Asking for References

Interviewer: If we decided to take the next steps in the interview process, would you call John and set up a time for me to speak with him about the work you did? 

Important! This is the moment of truth. Anything other than a solid yes is a concern. 

3. Look for Excuses

If the candidate dodges the question or makes an excuse, chances are they don’t want you to speak with that supervisor.


Because they’re afraid of what you’ll hear. That’s a bad sign (and often a deal breaker) but don’t give up. Let the candidate know this is an important part of your hiring process. Here are some excuses you might run into:

It’s been a long time since we spoke. That’s great! This is a good chance for you to catch up with him.
I don’t have her contact information. That’s fine. Thanks to the internet, people are easy to track down these days — especially if you worked with them.
It’s against company policy. I don’t want to violate company policy. A great candidate’s supervisor will want to give a great recommendation. That’s what we want. That’s not against any company’s policy.
He’s deceased. I’m so sorry to hear that. Who is his supervisor, or someone else at the company who can talk about your performance?
I’d rather you not speak with them. Okay. That’s fair. Why not?
That supervisor is no longer with the company. Could you track them down online for me?
I’m currently working for her, and I don’t want her to know I’m looking for other jobs. Fair enough. If I offer you the job and you accept, can I speak with her then?

We’ve heard it all. You can see detailed arguments against these and other referencing check excuses in our ebook on reference checking.

4. Finish the Interview

When the interview wraps up, send the candidate a scheduling link (or availability) and have them set up the actual call. You don’t lift a finger, and the process of collecting the reference tells you almost as much about the candidate as what you’ll learn during the chat!

reference checking

During the Call

Follow the steps below when you make the call to your candidate’s former direct supervisor.

5. Build Rapport

When you first call the candidate’s direct supervisor, take a little time to build rapport. Reassure them that everything you discuss will be kept confidential — you won’t share it with the candidate.

6. Validate the Reference

Verify the identity of the reference. Get their name and title, and ask what they do at the company. The goal here is to verify that they’re in a position to be a good reference, and aren't just the candidate’s buddy. You might want to include a bit about your company, and the position you’re considering this candidate for.

Pro Tip: Bob Nicoson, VP and chief HR officer at Constant Contact, suggests that social media can help validate references. It’s easy to verify a name and job title on LinkedIn.

7. In Your Experience…

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

8. Check Context

Find out in what capacity the reference managed or supervised your candidate. Were there others on the team as well? Were other managers involved? Then, ask about the candidate’s role and what they did. That will let you compare what the candidate told you in their interview against the reference’s perspective.

9. Ask“The Question”

Bradford Smart outlines one of the most important questions to ask a reference check in his book Topgrading. The (two-part) question goes like this:

  1. What would you rate this candidate on a scale of 1-10, compared to others you have managed?
  2. What could they have done to get to the next highest number? (From an 8 to a 9, for instance)

The reason that’s such a powerful question for reference checking is that it gives you some scale — a yardstick to gauge the candidate’s performance.

The second part of the question is key, because it leads you to these follow-ups:

10. Identify Performance

What were the candidate’s performance expectations, and how were they tracked or measured? How did they 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 they best left alone to get their work done?
  • Feedback: How was this candidate at receiving and giving feedback? What was their communication style?

11. Trust the Reference Data

There are valid reasons for a candidate to avoid giving a specific reference. Some managers are toxic, and relationships aren’t always rosy. But in general, trust the responses you collect — and the lack of answers. You’ll need three to four positive references to overcome one bad response.

reference checking

Reference Checking Questions

The process above takes care of the basics of reference checks. For the fine details, here are the must-ask questions for checking references:

  1. What do you do at the company?
  2. What was your experience working with this candidate?
  3. In what capacity did you manage them?
  4. Were there others on the team?
  5. How many employees work at your company/facility?
  6. Were other managers involved?
  7. What was the candidate’s role?
  8. What were their job responsibilities?
  9. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate this candidate in terms of overall performance? Important!
  10. What could they have done to get a higher score? Important!
  11. Would you rehire this person?
  12. How was their performance measured?
  13. How did they perform compared to others?
  14. Did they exceed expectations?
  15. How well did they give and receive feedback?
  16. How would you describe your relationship with the candidate?
  17. Were there any problems with absences or tardiness?
  18. Was this employee a team player?
  19. What are their best qualities?
  20. Did their technical or soft skills develop over time?
  21. How well were they able to [select a job responsibility or skill cited by the candidate]?
  22. Do you think they would be able to [describe an important aspect of your open position]?

Reference Checking Services

If you love the process above as much as we do, but you’d like someone experienced in reference checks to automate the process, Discovered’s Reference Hunter is a tested, trusted tool that lets you customize and fine-tune your reference-checking questions to their liking.

Get a summary of feedback for each candidate based on standardized questions. You’ll receive a top-line view of high-quality responses, cut down on bias, and even avoid potential fraud.

Reference Checking Myths

Countless hiring managers miss out on the benefits of reference checking because they incorrectly think it’s illegal, unethical, or ineffective. Not only are these beliefs false — they encourage negligent hiring.

Let’s break down the facts and bust the myths.

Reference Checks Are Illegal: False

Reference checks are definitely legal. In related rulings, The Supreme Court upheld the legality of reference checking for employers on numerous occasions. They even go as far as citing their importance in the hiring process. 

So — where does the myth come from? The EEOC prohibits past employers from giving false employment references. In other words, if someone calls you for a reference, you can’t lie because you didn’t like the person. And you can’t use references to discriminate based on race or gender. Beyond that, reference checking gets a green light.

Reference Checks Are Unethical: False

Reference checks are not only ethical, it’s negligent hiring not to conduct them. If you don’t check with a job candidate’s past employers about their job performance, you’re not doing due diligence in your hiring process. If you fail to confirm that a previous supervisor rates an applicant high on measures of performance, attitude and integrity, you’re massively lowering the chance you’ll make a great new hire.

Reference Checks Don’t Work: False

Done the right way, reference checks are the easiest and most effective selection tool a hiring manager can use. Many organizations treat it as a form-filling exercise, to verify employment history. Or they see it as a way to confirm basic information like dates of employment or job titles.

But those approaches miss out on a serious competitive advantage. Done right, reference checks shine a spotlight on the LeBrons and Tom Bradys in your applicant pool.

Anyone Can Be a Reference: False

When you select the right references — namely, past supervisors — you give yourself a window into a candidate’s true intentions. Not only can you confirm their strengths, but you can identify their biggest weaknesses and mitigate potential risks for your organization.

Avoid personal references from friends and family, co-workers, or anyone except past supervisors. References from these kinds of contacts muddy the waters.

Reference Checking Takes Too Long: False

The reference check process doesn’t have to be time-consuming. You can embed it within your existing interview process and solicit professional references directly from the candidate.


Reference checking is a critical part of the hiring process, yet one that’s tragically undervalued. By gathering the right references and asking the right questions, you’ll gain unfettered access to a candidate’s personality, work ethic, and integrity. Use those data points to your advantage, and replace mishires with all-stars.

reference checking

Automate Your Candidate Reference Checking Process

We were mind-blown by the number of organizations that forgo reference checks.

So we created Reference Hunter.

We know reference checking is uncomfortable and time consuming.

So — 

Let Reference Hunter do it for you.

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