When to Reference Check?

Shawnee Love   •   April 5, 2019

Hopefully you have bought into the notion that references checks are worthwhile which we blogged about last week.

Now its time to discuss how to do them.


  • Get consent from the candidate to call references:  If you want to be able to call anyone they have worked for, rather than asking for a list of references, just ask the candidate to confirm general consent. E.g., “Please sign confirming our company may contact past employers for more information on your work performance.”
  • Have a standard list of questions: Your reference checking template should include the basics on the job as well as cover what is important to working in your company (such as values).
  • Ensure questions validate what the candidate told you:  Yes, that does mean while you have a standard list of reference questions, you will “off-road” a bit for each reference to confirm what the candidate said.
  • Ask open ended questions:  For example, “Can you describe how the candidate organized his/her work?”  This type of general question leaves lots of room for the reference to provide input.
  • Ask references for more information: When the reference answers a question about organizational skills for example, the answer may fall short of what you need to understand.  Have a few drill down questions at the ready such  as “Can you tell me more?”, “Can you give me an example?”, “How did s/he do that?”, and “How did it work?”
  • Clarify the context from which the reference is speaking:  One of the important aspects to consider with references is that they are speaking about how the candidate worked in their environment, job, team, and culture which may not be anything like yours’.  For example, an exceptional manager in a large bureaucracy, may drown in an entrepreneurial company where everything has to be built and rebuilt on the fly.  Ask what the environment was like and or share the key aspects of your environment and ask the reference how s/he thinks the candidate will do there.


  • Skip them: If nothing else, they are another tool in the hiring toolkit.  If you are hiring someone for the long term, it pays to use every tool at your disposal.
  • Do them on every candidate: A reference is a valuable contact for a candidate and a future employer. Be respectful of their time and don’t call unless you are truly serious about hiring the candidate. You can certainly do reference checks on more than one finalist, but I call foul when you reference check everyone you interview.

References are a valuable source of information on how to manage a future hire successfully, confirm a candidate’s ethics, and learn more about the candidate’s personality, work style, and motivators.  That wealth of information is only a phone call away, and that’s why we make reference checking a priority in our hiring process.  We hope you will too!