Human Resources

Reference Checking

Reference checks are typically obtained to confirm details on an application, check for prior discipline problems, discover new information about an applicant, and as a means of predicting success on the new job. To facilitate a uniform, structured approach and create an easy means of record keeping, we have developed a reference form template for your use.

  • Guidelines
    • Check references on only those candidates under serious consideration after final interviews.
    • Inform the candidate that you plan to check references and get their verbal "OK" to do so.
    • While the applicant’s signature on the application form gives us "permission" to verify any information contained in the application, it is wise, and a courtesy, to ask. If the candidate does not want you to contact a certain employer, you need to explore the reasons with the individual.
    • Check references by phone, not by mail. Some organizations and people tend to be reluctant about putting less than positive remarks on paper.
    • Call most former employers. The most recent employer may not have bad things to say about a candidate, but there could be issues with previous employers.
    • Whenever possible try to talk to the applicant’s direct supervisor.
    • Begin the conversation with a businesslike tone. Be friendly but maintain a strong sense of a professional doing his/her job. Say who you are (name, title, organization), why you are calling (say you are calling to "verify past employment" rather than "requesting a reference"), and move right into your questions. Resist any attempt to refer you to their personnel department unless the supervisor says their policy absolutely forbids giving references.
    • Limit your inquiries to verifiable job-related information. It is inappropriate to inquire about areas not related to actual on-the-job performance. These include questions related to hobbies, social activities, religious or political beliefs, marital status, children, residence, medical status or disability, and any past legal actions including workers’ compensation claims, civil rights charges and safety complaints.
    • If you check the references of more than one applicant, make sure that you ask the same general questions about each candidate.
    • Ensure that reference information is weighted in the same way for all applicants. What disqualifies one applicant should be the basis for disqualifying any applicant.
    • If negative information is uncovered, consider its source and check its accuracy with other sources before using it to make a decision about the applicant.
    • Assure the person you are speaking with that any information will be shared only with officials involved in the hiring process and not otherwise disclosed.
    • Document the information gathered from your reference check(s), noting even those reference requests for which you obtained no information.
  • Sample Reference Questions
    • How well, and in what capacity, do you know the candidate?
    • What were the candidate’s dates of employment?
    • Is this a person you would hire if you had an open position? (Or, in other words: Is the candidate eligible for rehire?)
    • How would you describe the candidate’s work habits?
    • How much supervision does/did the candidate require?
    • How well does the candidate work, and interact, with people? (Supervisors, subordinates, peers, customers/clients)
    • Why is the candidate interested in other employment?
    • What were the candidate’s major accomplishments?
    • How would you describe the candidate’s communication skills?
    • How effectively does/did the candidate use his/her time?
    • What are the candidate’s work weaknesses?
    • Would you consider this individual to be honest?
    • Is this individual a team player?
    • How structured an environment would you say this individual needs to reach maximum potential?
    • Please comment on this person’s response to constructive criticism.
    • Does this individual typically adhere strictly to job duties, or does he/she assume responsibilities beyond the basic, written job description?
    • How does this individual handle interruptions, breaks in routine, and last- minute changes?
    • How would you rate this person’s commitment to project completion?
    • How would you grade this person’s capacity for analytical thinking and problem solving?
    • Does this individual need close supervision to excel, or does he/she take more of an autonomous, independent approach to her/his work?
    • Do you see him/her eventually making the transition from a tactical and operational career path to the strategic level necessary for a career in senior management?
    • How would you grade this individual’s listening skills?
    • How effective is the candidate at delivering bad news?
    • Will he/she typically assume responsibility for things gone wrong?
    • How does this individual approach taking action without getting prior approval?
    • Is this person’s natural inclination to report to someone else for sign-off, or does she/he operate better with independent responsibility and authority?
    • Is this individual inclined to maintain smooth and amicable relations at all costs, or is she/he more likely to show his/her teeth when faced with adversity?
    • Please describe some of the candidate’s shortcomings.
    • When there was a particularly urgent assignment, what steps did the candidate take to get it done on time?
    • What are his/her leadership (or “value added”) strengths?
    • What were his/her leadership opportunities, if any?
    • Ability to work effectively with individuals at all levels, including government entities.
    • Will he/she typically assume responsibility for things gone wrong?
    • Please grade the individual’s capacity for initiative and taking action.
    • Is this candidate’s management style more autocratic and paternalistic or is it geared toward a more participative and consensus-building approach?
    • How effective is this person at orchestrating a corporate ensemble of functional areas?
    • Please address the candidate’s ability to cope with the significant pressures associated with senior management.
    • How does this individual deal with disciplining or dismissing employees?
    • Does the candidate stay open to all sides of an argument before reaching a decision, or does he/she get personally involved in conflicts?

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