Everything You Need to Know About Reference Checks

Whether you are the reference for a former employee or you need to conduct a reference check for a candidate, here is everything you need to know.



Have you ever answered the phone only to get the following response:

“Hi, I’m doing a reference check for a former employee and would like to ask you a few questions.”

What do you do if the person they are asking about was difficult to work with? Can you be completely honest in the call? Or what if you are tasked with calling references for a candidate—what do you ask and what should you look for in an answer? 

Whether you are doing the asking or being asked about a candidate, watch our video covering everything you need to know about reference checks. You can also check out an article on this topic below and download a guide for your reference checks if you are conducting them for your company.

What is a reference check and why is it important?

A reference check occurs when a future employer contacts someone who is listed on a candidate’s list of references. They are utilized as a form of due diligence to ensure a company is hiring a reputable employee. 

Reference checks usually occur late in the interview process just before the job offer and are not the same as an employment verification. Employment verification 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.

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.

According to a poll by Accountemps, nearly one out of three individuals (34%) are no longer considered for a position with the organization after it performs a reference check. This crucial process is how a company will vet a potential employee; therefore, how you respond carries weight. It’s important to keep this information in mind if you receive a call. 

Reference checks range from asking questions to verify employment, to speaking about the skillset of the employee in the context of their previous job.

What can you say in a reference check?

If you’re on the receiving end of a reference check, make sure that 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. This includes 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.

Can I tell the truth about a former employee?

The very first thing you should do is verify that you have authorization to even give a reference in the first place. If so, double check that 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.

What can you ask during a reference check?

plate, you might be asked to conduct reference checks for candidates in your hiring funnel. If this happens, be sure to ask questions that will help determine if the candidate is the right fit for the job. 

Similar to conducting a job interview, it’s best practice to use 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 answers should I look for during a reference check?

The questions you ask during a reference check should help you determine:

  • The competency of the candidate, including specific inquiries regarding the applicant's level of experience and job-related abilities.
  • The candidate's character to know their work ethic and behavior.
  • The applicant's honesty, including confirming that the documents and information provided during the interview process were truthful.

While there isn’t one true “answer” to look for that will guarantee that the candidate is a good fit, you can look for honesty and transparency. Make sure what the reference says matches what the candidate provided. Listen closely to their answers and use your best judgment to determine character. 

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.

Use reference checks to your advantage

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. 

Who can I ask for more information?

Our Stratus HR experts can answer your questions and advise on best practices. Book a free consultation and our team will contact you shortly.

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