Recently a client asked me to provide them with a list of reference check questions as a component of a sales recruiting project. My gut reaction was, "Reference checks? Why bother? All most companies will provide is confirmation of very basic information such a dates of employment."

It struck me that my impression was based on very old information. After all, I hadn't conducted any reference checks or researched related best practices for many years. I decided that it was time to take a fresh look at the current state of reference checking and summarize my findings in this article.

What is a Reference Check?

Let's begin by clarifying what a reference check isn't:

It isn't a Background Check, which may include a drug test, a check for criminal records and other data verification.

It isn't Employment Verification, which confirms dates of employment, salary, title and eligibility for re-hiring (though a thorough reference check may include employment verification).

The best definition I found to explain the purpose of a reference check is this: A Reference Check focuses on checking previous colleagues' opinions about an individual's performance.

Why conduct Reference Checks?

The primary reason is past performance is one of the strongest predictors of future performance. If you can gather accurate and balanced information (that addresses both positives and negatives) from a job candidate's past employers, you can dramatically increase your chances of avoiding hiring mistakes and hire people who will perform well.

What challenges are involved in conducting Reference Checks?

Here are some of the key challenges:

  • Not enough quality references
  • It can be hard to reach them
  • It can be hard to get valid data
  • Time and cost
  • Most people don't find doing this kind of work to be a lot of fun

What are key characteristics of a good Reference Source?

When conducting reference checks, you want to speak with individuals who have been in a position to observe the performance of your job candidate. This includes people who have worked with or for the candidate or have supervised the candidate. It does NOT include family members or friends.

Other important parameters to consider are:

  • Length of relationship
  • Freshness of relationship
  • Nature of relationship
  • Closeness of relationship

Is providing Reference Check information Legally Risky?

Although legal challenges may arise from the reference checking process, they are usually the result of poor practices such as discussing prohibited topics.

According to the 2004 Reference and Background Checking Survey Report compiled by the Society of HR Management, just 2% of companies are sued for reference-based defamation. It is important to note that the standards applied to reference-based defamation suits are the same as those applied to libel suits - the plaintiff needs to prove not just harm, but also malicious and dishonest intent. This is a very high bar.

When you think about it, there can also be risk in providing positive information. If you make positive comments about a candidate and the prospective employer hires the candidate, and the candidate performs poorly, that employer could sue you for not disclosing complete information.

Lately, many states have been enacting what are referred to as "truth in reference" laws. These laws protect companies that give references as long as the employer providing the reference only gives factual, documented information. (An employer should NOT provide any information about discrimination charges an employee may have raised against that employer.)

How to enhance Legal Defensibility and obtain Better Information

Here are some best practices that can help you reduce legal risk and gather better quality information:

  • Have each candidate sign a written consent form and a release of liabilities form
  • Ask the same questions to all reference sources
  • Ensure that all questions relate to the requirements of the job and to employee performance or conduct during their previous job(s)
  • Include open-ended questions about the candidate's strengths, accomplishments and areas for improvement
  • Also ask, "If given the opportunity, would you re-hire the candidate? If no, why not?"
  • Encourage the reference source to provide evidence of job performance based on observable work behavior

Avoid questions on prohibited topics, which include:
  • Age
  • Disabilities or health problems
  • Marital status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Stable home life
  • Child care arrangements
  • Care for elderly parents
  • Require time off from work to practice religion

What else can I do to make the Reference Check process as easy and productive as possible?

There are online services that can help you manage the reference check process quickly and efficiently and improve the quality of the information you receive. The reasons why these services work so well include:

  • The job candidate invites their references to participate
  • References are anonymous, which increases the willingness of reference sources to provide more detailed information about the job candidate's strengths, weaknesses and observed performance
  • The job candidate is required to sign an online consent form and a release of liabilities form
  • Use of an automated process ensures consistency in the questions asked

Where can I get more information?

An online service called Checkster provides a number of brief videos that explain how their service works. They will also send you an excellent list of reference check questions if you send an e-mail to

Summary Tips

In conclusion, here are some summary tips that will help you conduct productive, effective reference checks:

  • Create and follow a structured process
  • Ask job candidates to sign a written consent form and a release of liabilities form
  • Focus discussions on performance and job-related behaviors
  • Ask probing questions about the candidate's strengths, accomplishments and areas for improvement
  • Take detailed notes
  • Consider using a tool like Checkster to automate your reference check process and provide reference sources with anonymity that will increase their willingness to provide useful information

©2010 Alan Rigg