How to Check References on Job Applicants

You learn a lot about potential employees during job interviews, but performing a reference check can ensure that applicant is being honest and is a good fit for your business. Here’s how you should go about checking references and a list of questions you should ask. 

With resume falsification an ongoing concern, many organizations have become more aggressive in conducting reference and background checks. Doing so is a best practice and is not required by law. If you plan to conduct reference and background checks, which I highly recommend you do, here are some pointers to follow.

As a starting point in your reference checking activities, you may want to verify the correct spelling of applicant’s name(s), check for aliases, verify the applicant’s SSN, verify current and previous addresses, and verify the applicant’s home telephone number. Next check information related to educational, business, and professional achievements. You can verify degrees earned, certificates received, and professional designations obtained. And, depending on the nature and requirements of the job, such as bonding or security clearance requirements, the degree of contact with the public, and other factors, check the applicant’s credit history and conduct a criminal conviction check.

Since some references may be reluctant to discuss an employee’s work performance or conduct, it has become common practice to have applicants sign a form, releasing their references from liability for responding to your inquiries.

RELATED: How to Write a Reference for a Former Employee

In my experience, telephone or email inquiries are usually the quickest way to contact references. You could also send a letter on your company stationary requesting a reference. As a rule of thumb, I like to get three references for each qualified job candidate.

Seek only information that is relevant to the position being filled and which will help you to choose the best candidate. Never request or collect information about an applicant — or employee — that you can’t or won’t use. Reference questions about an applicant’s propensity for filing discrimination charges, OSHA and workers’ compensation claims, union grievances, or employment practices lawsuits, for instance, place you on a slippery slope, since you may not be allowed to use this information in making a hiring decision. For example: if you do not hire an applicant after receiving information about previous discrimination claims activity — even though your decision was based on other factors — the EEOC may charge both you and the organization ­that provided you with negative information with unlawful retaliation.

Plan your questions and ask each reference the same list of questions. Give the person time to respond, don’t put words in his or her mouth, and, if you aren’t sure what he or she is trying to say, ask follow up questions. Here are of some of my favorite questions to ask when doing a reference check:

  • How do you know this person? For how long?
  • How would you describe him/her professionally and personally?
  • On a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being the highest, how would you rate this person on meeting his or her business goals?
  • We all have strengths and areas of weakness. What is his/her greatest strength and biggest challenge?
  • What would you advise me about how to manage him or her?
  • Would you hire this person again? Why or why not?
  • Tell me about this person’s level of integrity.
  • In your opinion, what is this person’s growth potential?
  • Is there anything else I should know?

Given how important each hiring decision is, I believe it makes good sense to spend the extra time to conduct a reference check. 

RELATED: 5 No-Fail Hiring Tips for Small Businesses

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