Here's How to Check References and a Reference Checking Format

Why You Need a Format for Reference Checking

HR staff member calls a prospectives employee's references.
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Checking job or employment references is time-consuming and frequently unsatisfactory, as many employers, despite legislation that provides protection for references, refuse to offer more than dates of employment, salary history, and job title.

Secondly, if you're not careful, each reference check can turn into a friendly chat during which you don't obtain the information you need to make an objective decision about hiring your candidate.

If you have the opportunity to reach your candidate's manager, you are likely to get better information that highlights the candidate's skills and contributions. Talking to Human Resources rarely yields the kind of information that you need to make a hiring decision.

Many companies today, because of the fear of potential lawsuits, have adopted policies that state that HR must respond to all reference checks. These policies also forbid managers and employees from talking with a candidate's background checker in a background check.

Who Should Check References?

Reference checking is often relegated to Human Resources in organizations. That's not who should own reference checking. The manager of the position should check the employment references.

He or she has the most to lose if the needed skills and cultural fit don't work out. The manager's feel for the viability of the candidate is also key to the person's eventual success as an employee.

The manager's support of and belief in the candidate's ability to successfully perform the job form the foundation for the person's eventual success in your organization.

Sure, Human Resources can:

But for most jobs, the manager of the position is the best person to check the references of former and current employers. This is especially true for talking with past employers and the candidate's former bosses. The manager knows the technical qualifications a candidate must bring to a position.

The manager knows the appropriate questions to ask the current and/or former employer about the candidate's work. The manager can listen for statements that indicate cultural fit and that the strengths listed match the strengths you need.

Before you turn your managers loose on reference checking, however, training in how to check references is required. Your managers will range from talented interviewers to tongue-tied professionals unable to ask the appropriate questions without your training, coaching, and mentoring.

Since you never get a second chance, particularly with the candidate's former manager, doing it right the first time is paramount. And, this training needs to include how to reach the manager, how to bypass the HR office, if possible, and how to help the reference open up and communicate to you about the potential employee

Use a Standard Format to Check References

As with most Human Resources processes, a standard reference checking format is useful. You can easily compare candidates and ensure you are asking the right questions to make an educated decision before offering the applicant a job with your company.

Don't check references until you are ready to make an offer to a candidate. This saves staff time and demonstrates your respect for the candidate. After all, you don't know whether his current employer or her favorite professor even know that he or she is looking for a new position. (It is preferable that candidates tell their employer, but realize this isn't always possible, or even desirable.)

Here are the recommended format and sample questions that you can use to check references.

Make sure that you verify that the candidate’s reference checking permission signature is on your employment application before starting the interview. If it's not, ask the candidate to sign the application before you check references. This is recommended as a precaution so employers are legally and ethically safe.


Reference Name:

Company Name:

Company Address:

Company Phone:

Dates of Employment:



Starting Position:

Ending Position:

Ending Salary:

What does your company do?

Please describe your reporting relationship with the candidate? If none, in what capacity did you observe the candidate's work?

Reason for Leaving:

Please describe the key responsibilities of the candidate in his/her most recent position.

How many reporting staff did the candidate manage? Their roles?

Tell me about the candidate’s most important contributions to the achievement of your organization’s mission and goals.

Describe the candidate's relationships with his/her coworkers, reporting staff (if applicable), and supervisors.

Talk about the attitude and outlook the candidate brought to the workplace.

Describe the candidate's productivity, commitment to quality and customer orientation.

What are the candidate's most significant strengths?

What are the candidate's most significant weaknesses?

What is your overall assessment of the candidate?

We are hiring this candidate to (job title or quick description). Would you recommend him/her for this position? Why or why not?

Would you rehire this individual? Why or why not?

Are there additional comments you'd like to make?

Is there a question that I should ask that I may have missed that will help us understand what this candidate potentially brings to our workplace?

Is there anything else we should know to make a hiring decision about this employee?

Thank you for your assistance in helping us make a hiring decision relative to this candidate.