A Guide to Checking Candidate References

Written by Erin Coursey, iHire
Closeup of employment forms for reference checks

While some hiring managers avoid checking references, doing so may be a significant mistake. Calling references is not only useful for validating information about a prospective hire; it may also provide substantial new details regarding an applicant’s past accomplishments or indications of his/her potential worth to your company.

Checking references can be a powerful tool for any hiring agent. By contacting the right people, planning your reference check questions appropriately, and carefully documenting the information you gather, you can feel confident that you have performed proper due diligence. A simple reference check email or short phone call will make your decision much easier and prevent a costly hiring mistake.

 

Professional at his desk talking on the phone

 

Contact Prospective Employees

Hiring managers and HR reps without much experience often wonder how to ask a candidate for references, but this process is actually quite simple. A straightforward email requesting references from a candidate is one approach. Another option would be to incorporate a “references” section within the initial application along with a release form that 1) permits the company to conduct reference and background checks, and 2) contains a clear waiver of liability against your organization/agents as well as former/prospective employers and their agents for information given during a check.

Most hiring personnel choose to perform their checks over the phone so that they are able to ask follow-up questions or request clarification. However, calling references can be time-consuming, so recruiters often resort to contacting references by email. Using a reference check email template maximizes consistency, and it’s easy to return to the questions and answers if you ever want to look at the information again.

When deciding whom you want to speak with, you should consider the information you are hoping to get. For example, a manager may be best situated to provide attendance records, while a coworker can speak to collaborative/teamwork abilities. Typically, you should talk to at least one person who has directly supervised the applicant. Except in very specific situations— such as those requiring certain types of security clearance— personal references are largely irrelevant and unnecessary.

 

Professional looking at his computer screen thoughtfully

 

Prepare Consistent Questions

Whether you plan on calling references or contacting references by email, first you’ll need to come up with a set of reference check questions. To maintain fairness throughout the hiring process, you must ask the same questions of each candidate’s references. By formulating your questions beforehand, you can ensure the answers you receive aren’t influenced by how you frame your inquiries, which will make it easier to compare responses across applicants.

Introduction                

When you first make contact with a reference, take a moment to introduce yourself, explain the purpose of your call, and give an overview of what the reference can expect from your questions. You should also provide a time estimate for the interview and a summary of the available position. The following example will help get you started and can easily be adapted for a reference check email template:

“Hi, my name is ____ and I’m calling to conduct a reference check for (applicant name), who is being considered for the position of ____. Your name has been provided by (applicant name), as a reference. The reference check will take approximately __ minutes to complete.”

Skills-based Questions                                                                                        

Inquiries about specific competencies should be open-ended and detailed. If you have difficulty designing these questions, develop a general list of necessary/preferred skills relevant to the opening to serve as a guide. Additionally, you should ask for specific examples of the candidate’s use of these abilities as well as an overall description of skill level. For example:

“Can you describe (applicant name)’s ability to manage multiple assignments and provide a specific example of a time when (s/he) performed in this manner?”

After completing the interview, consider reviewing your notes for this category and rank responses on a scale from Excellent to Unacceptable.

Administrative/Objective Questions

The other, more objective questions you will ask vary widely in purpose and function. Below is a list of some common information that hiring managers request:

  • Reference’s relationship to candidate
  • Reference’s job title
  • Applicant’s title(s) while working with reference
  • Applicant’s prior job duties
  • Applicant’s previous salary and rate of increase
  • Applicant’s attendance/punctuality tendencies
  • Whether applicant is eligible for rehire
  • Circumstances surrounding the applicant’s departure from the company/position

 

Professional taking notes during a phone call

 

Document Your Findings

It is important that you maintain records of all interactions with applicants/references to protect against negligent hiring claims and any other issues that might arise if a new employee fails to fulfill their job duties. Information to consider tracking includes:

  • Names/titles for all references checked
  • Copies of all written communications
  • Notes on all phone conversations
  • Name of person who contacted the reference
  • Each attempt to contact a reference and whether it was successful

 

Other Key Points to Consider

There is no set rule on how to ask a candidate for references, which reference check questions are most important, or whether calling references yields better information than contacting references by email. Each hiring organization has its own standards and practices. However, there are a few other key points to consider as you are checking references.

  1. Some candidates may perceive a reference check as invasive. Be prepared to explain your reasoning and have a plan in place for dealing with applicants who refuse to grant permission for you to contact any of their references.
  2. Once you commit to performing checks as a standard part of your employment process, make it a policy not to hire before consulting an acceptable number of references (usually two).
  3. Never ask questions relating to age, race, sex, religion, national origin, or disability.
  4. Verify additional relevant aspects of the applicant’s background such as criminal history, education, credit check (for a financial position), and driving record (for an opening in trucking, food delivery, etc.).
  5. Don’t allow the “references” section of an application to define the scope of your search. If a contact suggests others who might be better suited to answer some of your questions, or you are interested in talking with a former supervisor named elsewhere on the application, go for it! Just confirm that you have the candidate’s permission, first.
  6. Refrain from contacting HR departments for references unless there are no other options.
  7. Take into account not only what is said, but also the tone used. Use your judgment to determine when hesitation and other inflections deserve further investigation into their underlying issues.
  8. Don’t rely solely on written references provided by the applicant.
  9. Avoid making snap judgements if you hear a negative review or there are areas of discrepancy between information provided by a reference and an applicant. One individual’s poor opinion does not mean that the candidate is difficult to work with or lying. Give the applicant an opportunity to explain.
  10. Consider creating a form or template to fill out as you complete the interview to ensure that your notes are clear and organized.

Before you can begin checking references you have to find great candidates! Post your job with iHire to get top-notch applicants or search our resume database to find the industry-focused talent you’re looking for.