Have you ever been called for a reference check on a former employee? What can you say? Be sure you’re only asking and answering the right (and legal) questions. Watch the video for Laura’s advice.

“Hi, I’m doing a reference check for [insert name] and would like to ask you a few questions.”

“Oh no,” you think to yourself. “Can I tell them the truth? Getting rid of this person was the best thing I ever did. But can I say that?” (See the answer below…)

What is a reference check?

A reference check occurs when a future employer contacts someone who is listed on a candidate’s list of references and is utilized as a form of due diligence to ensure a company is hiring a reputable employee. Typical references may be former employers, managers, co-workers, or some other work affiliate who can help a prospective employer determine how well a job candidate could handle the new role.

What can you say in a reference check?

If you’re on the receiving end of a reference check, be sure you only speak about the employee’s skills or abilities for which you have direct knowledge. When an employee has been fired or left your company for unfavorable reasons, it may be safest to only answer the questions allowed in an employment verification call, which are dates of employment, salary information, and whether or not the individual is available for rehire.

If the former worker had any incidences of violence, you may be liable for not revealing this information in a reference check. Please consult with an attorney prior to answering any questions about an individual with a violent history.

As a best practice, you should obtain an employee’s signature that authorizes reference checks prior to them leaving your organization. Always verify you have this on record before answering questions in a reference check.

reference check

Reference checks usually occur late in the interview process just before the job offer and are not the same as an employment verification, which is typically a call by creditors or government agencies to verify dates of employment, salary information, and whether or not the individual still works for your company.

What can you ask during a reference check?

If you’re the person contacting references, be sure the questions you ask will help determine if a job candidate is the right fit for the job. And, similar to conducting a job interview, it’s a best practice to have a standardized set of questions to avoid instances of discrimination, which will also help you fairly compare candidates.

Examples of acceptable behavioral-based questions include:

  • “How did this person manage a team?”
  • “What are some examples of this individual acting as a team player?”
  • “What was it like to supervise this former employee?”
  • “How effective was this person with completing the work given to them?”
  • “Why did this former employee leave your organization?”
  • “How did the individual handle the responsibilities of the job at your company?”
  • “What are this person’s best qualities?”
  • “What unique skills or attributes did this former employee bring to your team?”
  • “Why would (or wouldn’t) you rehire this person?”
  • “What do I need to be aware of to help this candidate succeed?”
What if the reference only gives you verification of employment data?

If the reference you contact doesn’t give you any helpful information about the candidate’s work ethic and capability, you can request the candidate give you other references to contact. Don’t let an ambiguous reference give you a negative impression about the candidate, as some companies have strict policies about what they can and cannot say about former employees.

Can I tell the truth about a former employee?

So, circling back to the initial question: can you tell a former employee’s prospective employer that you were happy to get rid of them? Well, first verify that you have authorization to even give a reference in the first place. If so, be sure your company doesn’t restrict you from saying anything more than basic employment verification information. When everything looks good, be sure to only answer the questions for which you have direct knowledge and experience. Allow the prospective employer to then fill in the missing pieces that you’re not comfortable answering.

Reference calls are invaluable tools for future employers, but they need to be handled properly by all parties — former and future employers — in order to serve their intended purpose. For more information, please contact our HR experts at HR@stratus.hr.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have access to a full-time HR department to ask HR questions like this, and get certified, expert advice for your situation? You can with Stratus.hr, and at a part-time cost! Contact our team today for more info!

    Laura Lancaster, PHR, SHRM-CP

    Author Laura Lancaster, PHR, SHRM-CP

    Along with being a Master of Human Resources, Laura is a master of communicating and provides her clients with world-class customer service. She can really cut some rug on the country swing dance floor and enjoys musical theater in between motorcycle rides.

    More posts by Laura Lancaster, PHR, SHRM-CP