Tips for conducting reference checks on job applicants

Posted September 23, 2016

By Kyra Kudick, associate editor, J. J. Keller & Associates

Verifying the information provided by job applicants can help you not only ensure that you are hiring trustworthy and honest employees, but also confirm that they have the credentials to hit the ground running when they join your team.

However, checking an applicant’s references is not always as easy as picking up the phone and asking a few questions. You will want to speak to credible sources and make direct inquiries about previous job performance to get the most out of the reference check.

Who to contact

Instead of contacting personal references who may only be able to speak to a candidate’s general character, keep your reference checks focused on sources who have worked directly with the applicant and who have knowledge of the applicant’s work experience. Verifying the information presented on resumes is often a very effective way to assess general work ethic and personality traits.

Making inquiries

Before you call, make a list of questions relevant to the position. It is best to start with questions that verify employment (e.g., dates of employment, job title, salary, and job duties) and then move on to more personal questions about the applicant’s past performance.

Not only does this help you stay organized and confirm the accuracy of the information the applicant has already provided, it also eases the person giving the reference into the conversation and may result in more candid disclosures.

Consider including questions like these:

  • What was the applicant’s reason for leaving?
  • Would you consider rehiring this person? Why or why not?
  • What other positions did he or she hold at the company? (You can ask more direct follow-up questions to find out if the applicant was promoted, demoted, transferred, etc.)
  • How well did the applicant perform his or her duties? Can you give an example of a time he or she went beyond what was required?
  • Describe the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses. How did he or she get along with coworkers, supervisors, and customers?
  • What was the applicant’s attendance record? Were there any issues with absenteeism or tardiness?

When discussing an applicant’s past performance with a former employer, pay particular attention to any hesitations or pauses, and listen for tones such as sarcasm or bitterness. You will want to follow up on questions that elicit such responses by politely saying, “It sounds like you weren’t pleased with those results. Would you mind explaining the details of the situation?”

End the interview by asking the reference if there’s anything else to take into consideration before hiring this candidate.

While these are all good questions to ask, remember that there are also questions you shouldn’t ask a reference. It is best to avoid questions that could suggest your company is taking illegal factors into consideration when hiring. For instance, avoid any questions that might reveal an applicant’s membership in a protected class (e.g., questions regarding race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability).

Also, keep in mind that regardless of what you ask, some former employers have a strict policy on not providing references (beyond confirming dates of employment and job titles) due to concerns over defamation claims. If you encounter such a situation, inform your human resources department. You might be able to obtain a liability waiver from the applicant.

About the author:

Kyra Kudick

Kyra Kudick is an associate editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc., a nationally recognized compliance resource company that offers products and services to address the range of responsibilities held by human resources and corporate professionals. Kudick specializes in employment law/HR issues such as employee relations, hiring and recruiting, and training and development. She is the author of J. J. Keller’s Employee Relations Essentials manual and SUPER adVISOR newsletter. For more information, visit and Click here for Kyra’s LinkedIn profile.