This article is part of a larger series on Hiring.
Employment reference checks are calls you make to at least two references (they may be personal or professional) where you ask about the candidate’s qualities, qualifications, and work habits. While most references provided by an applicant are biased in their favor, asking the right questions can help you uncover some red flags or confirm your hiring choice.
This guide covers the types of reference checks, how to conduct them, and legal issues surrounding reference checks, including questions to avoid.
Types of Reference Checks
There are two types of reference checks that HR or a hiring manager may perform during the hiring process: personal and professional. Each presents a different set of questions, and you’ll generally have a more extensive list of questions for the professional reference.
How to Conduct Employment Reference Checks
The employment reference check is one of the most important applicant screening steps in the hiring process. This might be the only time when you talk to someone other than a candidate about their skill set and work performance. To get the most out of these calls, follow the steps below.
Note: In place of references, applicants may offer you a reference letter. However, these often provide only surface-level information, don’t give you the chance to ask questions of the reference, and may have even been written by the candidate. Take the reference letter into consideration, but continue to conduct professional reference checks.
When to Conduct a Reference Check
Do not call any reference until later in the hiring process. Call former supervisory references when you’ve narrowed down the candidate pool to your final two or three. At that point, you’re confident that the applicants could do the job, and speaking with references may help put one candidate at the front of the pack.
It is recommended that you ask for references when scheduling the first interview. Some companies ask for references when the candidate first applies for a job. Doing so can make the reference check process go faster, but asking for references this early in the hiring process may scare some candidates away. They may not want to give reference names out of fear that their current employer will learn they’re looking for a new job.
Legal Issues When Conducting Reference Checks
Many companies do not allow their HR personnel or supervisors to respond to employee reference check questions, and they have this policy to keep them out of legal trouble. If a reference gives honest feedback but cannot objectively prove the truth of their statement, they could be liable for defamation if you choose not to hire the applicant.
That doesn’t mean you should give up, however. You should still verify the information provided by the applicant. Most companies will still give you objective data, such as
- Dates of employment
- Job title
- Supervisor’s name
It is also recommended that you ask, “Is the employee eligible for rehire?” This can give you important information. A “Yes” tells you the employee left on good terms and did at least good enough work for the company that it would consider rehiring them, whereas a “No” indicates the employee may not have left on good terms or did not perform well at work, which raises red flags.
If a reference does not want to or is prohibited by company policy from answering questions about the employee, you should not take that as an absolute negative. You can ask the candidate for additional references who might provide more insight.
Types of Questions to Avoid
You should also consider the legality of the questions you plan to ask the references. In some jurisdictions, asking about an employee’s salary is illegal. If you are hiring someone in one of those jurisdictions, you cannot ask previous employers how much they paid the applicant. All questions must relate to the job, and the same discrimination laws that apply to interview questions apply to employment reference check questions.
You also cannot ask references any questions that you cannot ask applicants. These include questions about the candidate’s:
- Family life
- Religious affiliation
The best way to avoid these questions is to have a standard policy for employee reference checks and your list of questions at the ready. Consistency ensures that you get the necessary information about applicants without putting your company in legal danger.
Employee reference checks are a vital part of the hiring process. Speak with at least two references for each candidate and ask them all the same employee reference check questions so that you can evaluate applicants equally.