10 Dos and Don’ts for Checking Candidate References


By taking the time to check candidate references, HR professionals can avoid poor hiring decisions that cost their companies valuable time and resources. Here’s how to pursue this lost art.

Imagine that you’ve just interviewed the perfect candidate to fill a coveted managerial position. With decades of experience, this individual boasts an impressive resume and seems to mesh well with your company’s culture. Although you are eager to make a job offer, you can’t afford to skip one crucial step in the hiring process: checking references.

While checking references has become a bit of a lost art, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) estimates that 80 percentOpens a new window  of HR personnel regularly consult references for professional, executive, administrative, and technical positions. Calling references not only validates information about a prospective hire but can also provide important new details that will help you avoid a costly hiring mistake. After all, the average cost of a poor hire can equal 30 percentOpens a new window  of the employee’s annual earnings. To bring the right hire onboard for the long haul, keep in mind the following advice for properly checking candidate references.

  1. Do be transparent with the candidate. Some candidates may perceive a reference check as invasive. Have a plan in place for handling applicants who refuse to grant permission for you to contact references, and be prepared to explain your reasoning and process. Consider providing a release form with the initial job application that explicitly permits your company to conduct reference and background checks. The form should also contain a clear waiver of liability against your organization, as well as former/prospective employers and their agents for information given during a check.
  2. Don’t conduct reference calls on the fly. Prepare a list of questions in advance. This will ensure the reference’s answers aren’t influenced by how you frame your queries and make it easier to compare responses across the applicant pool. You’ll also want to ask the same questions of each reference for each candidate to maintain fairness.
  3. Do explain your purpose and set clear expectations. When you first connect with a reference, take a moment to introduce yourself, explain the purpose of your call, and provide an overview of what the reference can expect from your questions. You should also provide a time estimate for the conversation and a summary of the applicant’s desired position. And, if you’ve caught the reference at a bad time, don’t be afraid to ask to reschedule the call.
  4. Do ask specific questions. As you prepare your list of questions, avoid open-ended and generic questions such as, “What do you think of Jim?” Instead, ask about specific skills and how the candidate exemplifies those competencies. If you need help forming these questions, develop a list of necessary skills for the open position and use them as a guide. For instance, if multitasking is a desired skill, you could ask, “Can you describe Jim’s ability to manage and prioritize multiple assignments? Can you share a specific example of a time he performed well in this manner?”
  5. Do know your limits. While it’s important to be specific when speaking with references, never ask questions relating to the candidate’s age, race, sex, religion, national origin, or disability. Queries should revolve around job performance, professional demeanor, strengths and weaknesses, and even character traits.
  6. Don’t make snap judgments. While reference calls can raise red flags, they should not serve as the final say in your hiring decision. One reference’s poor opinion does not mean that the candidate is difficult to work with or stretching the truth on his or her resume. If there are areas of discrepancy between information provided by a reference and an applicant, give the applicant an opportunity to explain. You may have just caught the reference on a bad day.
  7. Don’t rely on your memory. Take thorough notes during each conversation and keep copies of written communications. It is vital to maintain records of all interactions with applicants and their references to protect against negligent hiring claims and other issues that arise if the employee is unable to fulfill their job duties once hired. Keep tabs on names and titles of all references checked, as well as each attempt to contact a reference and whether it was successful.
  8. Don’t speak only with personal references. Personal references, such as friends and family, are often irrelevant and unnecessary, except in very specific situations— such as those requiring security clearances. Focus instead on speaking with former supervisors, managers, and even coworkers. As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to talk to at least one person who has directly supervised the applicant. This will help you learn more about the candidate’s attendance record, job performance, work habits, and more. You may also want to speak with a coworker who can discuss the applicant’s collaborative and teamwork abilities.
  9. Don’t restrict your outreach to the list of references provided. If a reference suggests others who might be better suited to answer your questions, or if you’d like to speak with a former manager named elsewhere on the application, don’t be afraid to do so. However, you must obtain the candidate’s permission first. Never broaden your outreach without first consulting the applicant.
  10. Do create a standard policy. No matter which questions you ask, how many references you contact, or how you keep tabs on your interactions, consistency is key. Strongly consider documenting and implementing a standard policy for the reference-checking process. For example, this policy should address how many references you must consult prior to making an offer (at least two is ideal).


Whether or not that perfect candidate emerges a winner after a thorough reference check, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that you performed your due diligence in the hiring process. You can more confidently make a decision that will positively impact your company for years to come.