This article is part of a larger series on Hiring.
Employee reference checks are calls you make to at least two job applicant references where you ask about the applicant’s qualifications and work habits. Many employers and HR professionals don’t routinely make these calls, which can be a big mistake. While most references provided by an applicant are biased in favor of the candidate, asking the right questions can help you uncover some red flags or confirm your hiring choice.
Reference Check Basics
The employee 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 an applicant about their skill set and work performance.
Many companies do not allow HR or supervisors to respond to employee reference check questions. Even companies with this policy, however, should still provide the job title, dates of employment, and other objective information, which you absolutely should verify.
In lieu of references, applicants may offer you a reference letter. I shy away from giving reference letters much weight because they often provide surface-level information, don’t give you the chance to ask questions of the reference, and may have even been written by the candidate. You’re much better off speaking with references directly or using employee reference checking software.
How to Conduct a Reference Check
Checking references differs from doing a background check. Make sure you’re running background checks correctly with our comprehensive background check guide.
Before conducting a reference check, always get permission from the candidate. It’s routine practice to ask every applicant for several references, and it’s best to ask for at least three supervisory references within the last three years. Make sure the references provided are for the applicant’s direct managers. Speaking with colleagues can supplement other references, but what you really want to know is the manager’s perspective.
Once you have received a list of references and permission from the applicant, it’s time to make the calls. If the applicant is currently employed, be careful about calling their current manager as that could get them into trouble if you spill the beans that the employee is looking for a new job. If you can’t reach a reference, ask the candidate to call the reference and let them know you’re trying to reach them. You can also ask the applicant to give you another reference.
Having a standard list of questions to ask references is important to avoid legal complications as well as ensure you’re getting the specific information you seek. Your goal in conducting an employee reference check is to verify details that the applicant has given you. Beyond that, you want to get a feel for the applicant’s work ethic and efficiency from a former supervisor. This can provide vital insight into how the employee will perform in your organization.
When to Do a Reference Check
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 don’t want to give reference names out of fear that their current employer will learn they’re looking for a new job. I recommend asking for references when scheduling the first interview.
No matter when your company collects references from applicants, do not call any reference until later in the hiring process. My recommendation is to call past supervisory references when you’ve narrowed down the candidate pool to your final two or three. At that point, you’re confident that any of the applicants could do the job and speaking with references may help put one candidate at the front of the pack.
Best Practices for Performing Reference Checks
- Prepare your questions. Most likely, you’ll have limited time to speak with references.
- Ask open-ended questions. It’s the best way to get quality information.
- Listen to the reference’s answers. Don’t just follow your script. Ask follow-up questions and read between the lines. Hear what the reference is saying and, often more important, what they aren’t saying. Make sure you’re asking lots of “How” and “Why” questions. If a reference says an employee was great, ask why they were so great.
- Observe how willing a reference is to speak with you. References provided by applicants should be ready, willing, and able to speak openly and freely about the candidate. If they’re reserved, vague, or provide short answers, that’s telling.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. Ask your question and let the reference respond. If they take a second to think about how to respond, don’t jump in, give them ideas, or try to lead them to an answer. Let them answer honestly and in their own words.
- Discuss intangibles. This could be how the applicant interacts with supervisors and direct reports. I also find it helpful to ask about a skill the candidate could improve. If, for example, the reference says the applicant could improve their interpersonal skills and the job you’re hiring for is customer-facing, then maybe you need to go back and ask more questions of the candidate about their demeanor with clients.
- Look for inconsistencies between references. If all references are saying similar positive things, you have a suitable applicant on your hands. But if one reference has trouble providing detailed insight or gives vague answers, it could be a sign the employee didn’t stand out or their work product wasn’t always adequate. Reading between the lines is important, but it’s also necessary to be reasonable—every reference won’t say the same thing, so some level of inconsistency will occur. Ultimately, you’re looking for trends, both good and bad.
Types of Questions to Avoid
In some jurisdictions, asking about an employee’s salary is illegal. If you are hiring someone in one of these jurisdictions, you cannot ask previous employers how much they paid the applicant.
You also cannot ask any questions of references 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. Consistency ensures that you get the necessary information about applicants without putting your company in legal danger.
Key Takeaway: All questions must relate to the job, and the same discrimination laws that apply to interview questions apply to employee reference check questions.
What to Do if a Reference Refuses to Speak
Some references may give you the cold shoulder. Maybe they don’t have time to speak with you or maybe their company has a policy of not providing reference checks. Many businesses 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
I also recommend trying to squeeze in one more telling question: Is the employee eligible for rehire? This question can do some heavy lifting and give you important information. A “Yes” answer to this question tells you the employee left on good terms and did at least good enough work for the company that they would consider rehiring them. A “No” answer to this question tells you 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 for additional names of people who might provide more insight.
The backdoor references, which can provide a broader perspective about an employee and are often blunter, are the most valuable. While you should absolutely speak with the applicant before reaching out to backdoor references, these are the references who will give you the unedited assessment of the applicant.
Need more tips on hiring? Check out our guide on how to hire.
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 questions so that you can evaluate applicants equally. Keep the candidates informed, but don’t be afraid to speak with backdoor references—they’ll often give you the unfiltered view.
Ultimately, the information you collect through reference checks helps you make the right hiring decision.