How to Check References

June 07, 2022
Checkr Editor

Editor’s note: Nothing in Checkr’s Blog should be construed as legal advice, guidance, or counsel. Companies should consult their own legal counsel about their compliance responsibilities under the FCRA and applicable state and local laws. Checkr expressly disclaims any warranties or responsibility or damages associated with or arising out of information provided.

Checking references is an integral part of the hiring process. Having someone provide additional information about a potential candidate can help determine whether they’re the right fit for your needs. References reinforce what a candidate has already told you, as well as confirm the skills, knowledge, and work practices of a prospective hire.

However, checking references is more than just calling the list of people provided. It’s important to know how to check references in a way that provides you with relevant information and respects the rights of candidates.

Here’s what you need to know about a job reference check and how to conduct a reference check correctly.

The importance of knowing how to check references

Obtaining references from a candidate’s previous employers is not as simple as it sounds. The complications associated with reference checking mean that hiring managers must be familiar with the correct way to check references.

Rushing the process or bypassing it may be tempting, but seeking reliable information remains an essential part of the hiring process. According to a survey conducted by talent firm Robert Half, 34% of job candidates were removed from the hiring process due to the results of a reference check. Statistics like these show just how vital checking references can be in finding your next perfect hire.

How to check references during your hiring process

Conducting a reference check includes multiple steps, and may vary based on your location. Your process must be consistent and fully comply with all applicable state laws. It’s best practice to seek legal counsel when establishing how to do a reference check.

Step one: When should you check a candidate's references?

The first step is deciding when to contact a candidate’s previous employer. Generally, you should not conduct a reference call unless this candidate is someone you might present with an offer. A single reference call could take anywhere from five minutes to an hour, so consider whether you want to engage in this process for every single applicant.

Step two: Calling vs. email

Hiring managers can either call a previous employer or send them an email. There are no restrictions on which method you use, it’s entirely up to you. If you have the time and resources, you may decide to use both methods. Calling is more likely to get you in touch with the right person immediately and may result in more in-depth answers, but emailing can also save time on your side and provide a written record.

Step three: Confirm basic information

Ideally, you should have a list of questions, the candidate’s resume, and any reference checking guidelines in front of you. However, working out how to call references is relatively simple. Start the call by introducing yourself and stating your purpose. Begin by verifying information like the candidate’s name and asking the employer how they know the candidate in question. This step aims to confirm the candidate was in fact employed by said company and ensure there are no inconsistencies.

Step four: Ask why the candidate is a good fit

As a hiring manager, you need to ensure that you’re hiring the person with the right qualifications. Ask the reference what makes the candidate a good fit for the position. Explain the scope of the job and whether they believe the candidate will thrive in their new position if hired.

Analyze the reference’s responses and the way they answer this question. For example, an enthusiastic response typically indicates genuine belief in the capabilities of a candidate. Listen for specific words (such as “organized” or “critical thinker”) in their response that reflects desired skills or characteristics in the role you’re hiring for.

Step five: Use ranking questions to learn more about a candidate

To gauge how well someone performs in certain areas, you can also have the reference rank candidates on a scale from one to ten. For example, you may ask a reference to rank a candidate’s communication skills on a scale of one to ten.

Ranking questions allow you to easily refer back to the results later. Obviously, if a reference ranks someone as a ten on everything, this makes matters more complicated. If this happens, try asking follow-up questions about why the reference has rated a candidate so highly.

Step six: Assess the candidate's strengths and weaknesses

The main goal of carrying out a reference call is to find out more about the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate. No prospect is perfect, so understanding where their weaknesses lie can also help prepare a development plan should you present an offer.

Ask specifics about the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate. For example, you might ask a reference to list two strengths and two weaknesses. Alternatively, you can ask where they think a candidate has room to grow and where they excel.

Step seven: Learn more about the candidate

Culture fit may be something a company considers when evaluating a candidate. Consider what your company goals and values are and how that translates into work skills and qualifications you’re looking for. During your call, consider asking behavioral questions, like:

  • How do they collaborate with others?
  • How do they communicate with their direct reports?
  • How do they disagree with other coworkers? 

These questions can give you a better understanding of how a potential hire might fit into your team.

Reference checking best practices

Knowing how to do a reference check is one thing. Ensuring you get the information you need while also remaining compliant with fair hiring practices is quite another.

There are several best practices to follow when learning how to check references. Follow these best practices on your next reference call.

Inform the candidate

Inform the candidate during the interview stage that you will be checking their references. Letting them know early in the process ensures that everyone knows what to expect from the start.

Avoid delegating the job

Will the prospective hire report directly to you? If so, consider whether you should be conducting a reference check yourself. You are the person who knows the position and what type of skills are required for the position. Moreover, references are typically previous managers, meaning they may be able to provide you with information on what type of management style the candidate responds to best.

Launch with the candidate's answers

Rather than simply checking off the boxes, make checking references an interactive part of the hiring process. Asking candidates in a job interview about what they believe their former employers will say about them is a great starting point. Beginning your call with the answer your candidate gave in the interview allows their former employer the chance to provide additional context to what was said during the interview.

Dig in to the candidate's responses

Not every call to a former employer will yield the same quality conversation. Some employers may not want to engage with your hiring process. Remember, many companies avoid checking references entirely.

When talking about or to references, make sure you pay attention to the answers and ask follow up questions to have a better understanding. For example:

  • Negative Feedback – Clearly, if a former employer has said negative things about a candidate, you may be wondering why. Rather than accepting the feedback, ask further questions to find out more context. Additional context can help you properly evaluate the negative feedback and whether it is relevant to the position you are hiring for. 
  • “Don’t Call” – If a candidate hints or outright tells you not to call a particular person on the list, ask the candidate why they are hesitant about you reaching out. Avoid jumping to conclusions—there are a million reasons why someone may not want you calling a specific person.
  • Non-Engaging References – Some employers may choose to only confirm facts like names, titles, and dates of employment. Employers certainly aren’t required to engage with your hiring process or even to provide any information at all. Some employers simply choose not to provide further information as a company policy. If you’re not sure, ask the employer if they’re willing to explain why they do not want to provide more information. 

If you have questions about something the reference said, get in touch with the candidate to give them a chance to explain. References are helpful, but they are ultimately only opinions. Plenty of hires with negative or neutral references have become the top performers in their new roles.

Create a consistent reference checking process

Consistency is key here. Your company should have clear guidelines on how and when your hiring manager will carry out reference checks. Questions should be relatively standardized, and you should have rules for when checks will be carried out and how many checks need to be conducted. For example, you may set guidelines that state ordinary team members will require 1-2 reference checks at the end of the interview stage, whereas managerial positions will require 3-4 checks at the end of the interview stage.

Partner with Checkr

Checking references can be the final deciding factor in whether to hire a candidate, which is why it’s important that you know the right questions to ask and how to analyze the answers. However, it’s also crucial that companies conduct reference checks in a way that respects the rights and privacy of each candidate.

To help you get to the reference checking stage of the hiring process, make sure you have the right background check company by your side. Checkr is passionate about fair hiring practices and helping companies find the right person for the job. Our solutions use artificial intelligence and machine learning for easier, faster and more compliant background checks. To learn more about what Checkr can do to streamline your hiring process, contact us now.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Ready to give us a try?