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How to Check References

“How to Check References”

You know you need to check references, and you also know you don’t have much time to get it done. How do you make this necessary task happen quickly, smoothly and effectively? Read on!


When it comes to checking a job candidate’s references, you can take lots of short cuts, but rushing through this vital process can lead to costly hiring mistakes.

In your fast-growth business, you may lack the luxury of time when filling open jobs. In your eagerness to plug personnel holes, you might skip reference checking altogether. Or you might stop after contacting one or two names that the applicant provides, rather than digging out others who may shed light on the individual’s personality and performance.

The ultimate test of reference checking is to ask yourself, "Did I learn something negative about the candidate?" If you haven’t, then you lack the knowledge to proceed. No one’s perfect. You must uncover an individual’s strengths and weaknesses before making a hiring decision.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • How to avoid legal trouble when checking references.
  • How to streamline the reference-checking process.
  • Ways to gather more revealing information from references.


As you ramp up staffing, you’ve probably confronted a legal minefield. On one hand, your employment lawyer warns you not to give frank, opinionated references for previous employees but to limit your responses to divulging job title, dates of employment and salary.

On the other hand, when you check references on job candidates, your lawyer advises you to dig aggressively for information on an applicant’s past, to go beyond confirming basic information and learn more about the individual’s character and job performance.

That’s good advice. Entrepreneurs who treat reference checking as a formality, who make a half-hearted attempt to call the "safe" names that the candidate submits and stop there, ask for trouble. Not only do hiring mistakes result in work not being done well, they can put a whole company at risk. Imagine the damage that could be done by an unstable, resentful computer programmer willing to burn bridges on the way out. Also, companies can be sued for "negligent hiring" and held liable for violent employee behavior if there is no evidence that new hires had their backgrounds checked.

Make reference checking easier by gathering the facts in an orderly manner:

  • Identify a candidate’s supervisors. Calling the individual’s boss is a good start, but you’ll learn more by asking candidates for the full name and current phone number of every supervisor they’ve had in the last five years. Tell the candidate that you will call these people.
  • Extract more names in the interview. Listen when interviewees mention others at work, even if it’s just in passing. Ask for the full names of the people they refer to and jot down this information. At the end of the interview, alert the candidate that you might add these folks to his or her reference list.
  • Ask candidates for a "bad" reference. Conclude interviews by asking applicants, "Can you give me the name of a reference who will be more critical?" Explain that you like to hear all sides before you make a final hiring decision and that it’ll help if you can speak with someone who might critique the candidate more forcefully.

Armed with your list of contacts, you need an efficient way to reach them. Playing telephone tag wastes time. Take these steps:

  • Enlist the candidate’s help. Rather than track down references on your own, ask the candidate to set appointments for you. Provide certain days and times when you’re available and have the candidate get back to you after confirming specific times with each reference.
  • Run a resume check. Fax or e-mail the candidate’s resume to all references before or during your talk with them. Then ask them to scan the resume and confirm its accuracy based on their knowledge of the individual’s work history.
  • Make yourself accessible. To contact hard-to-reach references, leave your home phone number and e-mail. Try the reference’s voice mail rather than relying solely on talking with a secretary. If you’re calling long-distance, invite the reference to call collect when getting back to you.

As a legal precaution, ask the candidate to sign a release form that acknowledges your intent to check references. Or better yet, include the release as part of the job application. This way, the job seeker releases past and current employers and other individuals from all liability when responding to your inquiries. While it’s not foolproof, it lowers the odds of legal wrangling down the line. And many companies won’t talk to you unless you show proof of this release.


Joe Carroll runs human resources at IST Management Services Inc., an Atlanta-based facilities management firm founded in 1997 with $10 million in annual sales and 160 employees. Carroll’s cardinal rule when checking references is "avoid the HR department at all costs."

"I go after the applicant’s supervisor directly," he says. "Occasionally the supervisor says, ‘I’m sorry. Only HR can respond to that.’ But I usually get a dialogue going."

Carroll created a questionnaire that he uses when talking with references. Aside from confirming employment dates, job title, job duties and compensation, he asks, "Can you describe the applicant’s work ethic?" and "What concerns would you have about hiring this person?"

He also turns the candidates into participants in the reference-checking process. In the interview, he’ll ask them to predict what their references will say about them "in terms of what you did well and what you could improve upon."

"Sometimes the applicants will open up and be tough on themselves," he says. "Most references don’t like to give out negative information, so if I can extract this kind of information from the candidates themselves, that’s helpful."

DO IT [top]

  1. Check the references of every single final candidate, without exception.
  2. Set a friendly, informal tone when introducing yourself to references. Say that you’re calling for a "personal reference." Don’t state that you "have some questions" or "need to confirm some information."
  3. An easy way to check references is to call them after hours. Leave a message on their voice mail explaining your reason for calling and closing with, "Please call me back if the candidate is outstanding." If none of the references call you, that’s a red flag.
  4. When talking with references, clarify the candidate’s reason for leaving past jobs. Say, "To confirm, this person left your company because. …" Resolve any discrepancies.
  5. Even if you’re using a survey form when checking references, don’t recite a list of questions as if it’s a dreaded chore. Adopt a warm, likable tone. Make the questions flow naturally from the conversation so that you don’t sound canned.
  6. End each reference call by asking, "Is there anything else you think I should know about this candidate?"

  7. Before hiring executives, call at least two former colleagues
    not recommended by the candidate. Start by saying, "I like to talk to a top candidate’s former colleagues to help me evaluate to what extent this candidate will make a good fit here."



The Complete Reference Checking Handbook: The Proven (and Legal) Way to Prevent Hiring Mistakes, 2nd edition, by Edward C. Andler. (AMACOM, 2003).

Internet Sites

Job Applicant Reference Checking: Documentation Form. CCH Business Owner’s Toolkit.

Reference-Checking Quiz, by Kelly Caldwell. Monster.com.

Employee Reference Request, by Don Phin. HR That Works.

National Association of Professional Employer Organizations.
Many PEOs provide background-check services. To see a NAPEO membership directory, select "Member Directories" and click on "Find a PEO." To see a listing of service companies that PEOs hire to do background checks, select "Member Directory" on the PEO directory page, click on "Find a Vendor," and then select "Background Checks" from the Service Category list.

Article Contributors

Writer: Morey Stettner