Human Resource Services

Home | Jobs@UNI | My Benefits | Forms | About Us
  • P&S Search Process: Conducting Reference Checks

P&S Search Process: Conducting Reference Checks


Prior to making a job offer, a candidate's background and references – prior employers, education, and personal references – should be verified and checked. By obtaining in-depth information about applicants' past job performance and work habits, you can identify and reject individuals who are incompetent or have a history of discipline problems or chronic absenteeism. It can also help you to reject individuals who are prone to violence or dishonesty.

A verification is simply confirming information provided in the candidate's application or resume, such as the individual's level of education. By contacting the school or college where the candidate indicates they received their most recent degree, and providing the individual's social security number, you can usually obtain verification as to (1) whether the individual attended classes there; (2) whether they received a degree; and (3) the type of degree and date received.

A reference check is conducted to find out more about the individual's experience, knowledge, skills, and abilities from a previous or current employer or a personal reference. Your goal is to obtain sufficient information to either verify or refute information provided by the candidate in their application/resume and during the interview.

A candidate's current employer may be contacted for a reference if permission is obtained from the candidate first. At least two references should be obtained from former employers. While many businesses now maintain policies of providing only the dates of employment and last position held, it is nevertheless important that you make the contact and document the information provided, as well as the name and title of the person providing the information. Information obtained from a reference must be kept confidential.

Conducting a thorough reference/background check is important because of a developing trend in the law to hold employers liable to third parties (other employees or customers) for negligence in hiring an employee who is incompetent, unfit for the job, or dangerous. This cause of action, based on the theory that an employer is responsible for the acts of its employees, can hold employers liable for improperly screening applicants who subsequently cause harm to third persons. Generally, employers have only been found liable for those acts that could have been avoided through a reasonable background investigation. Because of this emerging legal theory, it is very important for employers to hire qualified and competent employees by carefully screening all candidates for employment.

Reference Checking Tips

  • Consider adopting a strict policy not to hire any individual unless a minimum number of satisfactory references are obtained.
  • During the interview, identify and gather names of several job-related references not listed on the candidate's own reference list. Ask applicants to name individuals who should not be contacted for a reference and have them explain why.
  • If you have difficulty getting satisfactory references, ask the applicant to provide additional names or to let the reference know they has the applicants' permission to speak to you.
  • Check references by phone or in person. The response rate to written requests is lower.
  • Ask open-ended questions about employment history, job performance and potential problems. Never ask questions relating to age, race, sex, religion, national origin or disability.
  • Evaluate negative references fairly. A negative response from one individual doesn't necessarily mean the candidate is unqualified or difficult to work with.

Only job-related information should be requested from a reference. Following are some do's and don'ts to consider when making the reference call and a list of suggested questions which may be helpful to you in determining what questions you want to ask of references. You will likely obtain greater cooperation from a prior employer if you limit the number of questions to those that you feel are essential and to no more than 6-8 questions. While a personal reference may be willing to answer more questions, the information provided may not be as reliable since a candidate is likely to only provide personal references that will be complimentary.

Do's and Don'ts to Consider

  1. Do not leave a call-back if the person you are trying to reach is not available. You may receive the return call when you are unable to discuss the applicant.
  2. Identify yourself immediately, explain your position with the company, and tell the party why you're calling about the applicant.
  3. Assure your contact that any discussions you have will be held in confidence.
  4. Ask whether they are free to discuss the situation.
  5. Offer to have the party call you back collect if you sense that the person doubts the legitimacy of your call.
  6. Try to establish rapport with the party you are calling. Maybe you know someone in their organization. Many times a freer exchange of information comes about when the individual you are calling identifies with the company, your position, or some mutual point of interest.
  7. Tell the person about the position for which the applicant is being considered. A better evaluation can be made if it is in relation to a specific job.
  8. Ask the general question such as, "What was the nature of the applicant's work with you?" After the person responds, lead in with more specific questions.
  9. Let the person talk freely in answering for as long as they wish without interrupting. Often a question from you at the wrong time will shut off further information.
  10. Follow up and probe when you feel the contact is reluctant to discuss certain factors. Many times a further explanation of why you are "digging in" will elicit the information you want. After all, you are doing the applicant a favor by checking since placement in the wrong job could lead to ultimate unhappiness or even dismissal.
  11. Be alert for obvious pauses in answering when you ask questions. Often these are a sign that further questions may bring further information you might not otherwise have received.
  12. Do not be concerned about how long the conversation might take. A few dollars for a toll call might save untold dollars in expense in making the wrong hire.
  13. Do not hang up until you are sure that you know the opinion of the person called. Frequently, you will receive ambiguous answers. The person called may give very little useful information. One technique that often works is to summarize the conversation by making either of the following two statements:
    "I take it that you don't recommend the applicant for the position." Or,
    "I take it that you highly recommend the applicant for the position."
    Sometimes one or the other of these summary statements evokes the responses you need.
  14. Glance at your checklist of questions to be sure you have covered everything.
  15. Always end the call by asking the person, "Would you re-employ the applicant?" This question often brings forth information that you were unable to get by other questions.
  16. Be sure to thank your contact for his or her help.

Sample Questions

Just the Facts

  • What were the candidate's dates of employment?
  • What was the candidate's title?
  • What were the candidate's general responsibilities?
  • What is/was your relationship to the candidate (peer, subordinate, superior?)
  • How long have you known the candidate?

On the Job

  • How would you describe the overall quality of the candidate's work? Can you give me examples?
  • (For supervisors) What areas of performance did you have to work on?
  • What would you say are the candidate's strengths/weaknesses?
  • How would you compare the candidate's work to the work of others who performed the same job?
  • What kind of environment did the candidate work in?
  • How much of a contribution do you think the candidate made to you company/department?
  • How would you describe the candidate's ability to communicate?
  • How does the candidate handle pressure/deadlines?
  • How well does the candidate get along with co-workers?
  • How well does the candidate get along with managers?
  • How well does the candidate supervise others?
  • Can you give me your impressions of their management style?
  • Describe the candidate's success in motivating subordinates.
  • How does the candidate handle conflict situations?
  • Based on the candidate's performance with your company, do you think they would be good in the type of position we're considering them for?
  • What motivates the candidate? How ambitious is they?
  • Did the candidate have a good attendance record?
  • Were there any disciplinary issues?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate their work?

The Bottom Line

  • Why did the candidate leave your company?
  • Would you rehire this person? If no, why not?
  • What type of work is the candidate ideally suited for?
  • Were there any serious problems with the candidate that we need to be aware of before making a hiring decision?
  • Does the candidate have a tendency towards violence?
  • Do you have any additional information to share with us about this candidate?