Reference Checking

Reference checks are important because prior on-the-job performance is one of the best predictors of future job performance. Search committee members should gather broad, well‐balanced additional information about each candidate’s performance and potential. These provide an opportunity to research questions and concerns which arose from the application or during the interview.

  • When. Telephone reference checks can occur both before and after the site interview visit. If reference letters are solicited for semi-finalists or finalists, you should still plan follow-up phone checks to clarify any ambiguities. References are generally checked for finalists after site visits and final interviews and prior to making a job offer. Before contacting any references, contact the applicants to let them know 1) where you are in the screening process and 2) that you are about to begin contacting their references. Some applicants may not yet have informed their employers that they have applied for another position. 3) Ask if they would like to provide additional references. Let the applicant know if you plan to ask referees for any additional contacts. Be responsive if an applicant objects to having their references contacted and try to address any concerns they may have. Also notify candidates that you will be checking reference who are NOT on their list.
  • Who. Referee selection. It’s important to speak with people who have been responsible for monitoring, assessing and documenting applicants’ performance—preferably people who have directly supervised or mentored applicants. These referees can speak to work quality and potential, reliability, areas of excellence, potential problems or areas for professional development and important job behaviors.
    1. Talk with a former supervisor as well as former colleagues, peers, direct reports and other professional associates. A former supervisor can speak specifically to an applicant’s quality and quantity of work, reliability, potential problem areas and specific job behaviors. Peers, direct-reports and colleagues can speak to their experiences working with the applicant from an equal or lower-power position within the organization.
    2. When possible, contact several past employers to explore consistent trends in the applicant’s past performance. Calling several employers will also help balance the information received and guard against making a decision based on opinions or information that may not be factual. It is important that the solicited information relates directly to the applicant’s ability to carry out the responsibilities of the job.

Reference calls must be planned carefully to maximize reliability, validity and effectiveness and to minimize bias risks.

  • Whenever possible, schedule two people for each reference check. Different people may pick out different details or notice different nuances in a conversation.
  • Decide what you will tell the referees about key responsibilities of the position you are filling.
  • Use the Screening Criteria Matrix to select and design all questions.
  • Structure questions around what you want to know.
  • Use behavior-based questions to obtain details about how the applicant performed in specific situations that are relevant to the position you are filling and to explore questions that arose during the interview visit.
  • Design broad, open-ended questions to learn about the applicant’s experience, ability and transferable skills that relate to the position. Remember, the information you seek must be directly related to the applicant’s ability to carry out the responsibilities of the job.
  • Design specific questions to explore the applicant’s accomplishments, performance, potential, productivity and record of working with supervisors, colleagues/peers and subordinates.
  • Design follow-up questions to gain clarification and get more information; you may also need to ask ad hoc follow-up questions as needed to clear up any confusion or ambiguity, particularly when the referee’s answers are very brief.
  • Do not ask inappropriate questions which can raise an inference of potential discrimination. The same categories of inquiry that are prohibited in interviews are also prohibited in reference checks (see OHR-Search Excellence-Interviewing).
  • If relevant, ask whether the referee would rehire the applicant and the reasons for their answer.
  • Conclude with a request for any other information relevant to the applicant’s ability to be successful in the position.
  • See Search Excellence or the soon-to-be released Search Committee Training – Search Compliance and Fundamentals and consult with your search advocate for additional information on:
    1. explanation of bias risks
    2. mitigation strategies
    3. types of references
    4. reference check question examples
    5. veterans preference employment policy

Create a reference checklist, or form, to a) keep inquiries consistently on-track, b) ensure coverage of the same topics with each reference for each applicant and c) capture appropriate record of each conversation. If you use a reference form, it should include:

  • Your name
  • Date
  • Applicant name
  • Position applied for
  • Name, title and contact information for the reference
  • Working relationship between the reference and the applicant and duration of that relationship
  • Questions you plan to ask about each applicant, with room to note responses

The information received from references are a critical part of evaluating each applicant as a way to further assess candidates’ qualifications.

  • It is better whenever possible to contact references by phone or email to schedule the reference call at a time that will work for all parties. This also gives the referee time to revisit any records about the applicant, especially if it has been a while since the applicant left that position.
  • Make sure calls are made from a private location.
  • Set aside enough time to engage in a thorough conversation.
  • Make sure necessary information including the position description, applicant application and reference checklist are available.
  • Don't make assumptions but rather recognize questions as questions without adding judgement.
  • Request evidence from references – what the candidate said or did that caused them to form their judgements. 
  • If the reference raises any doubts, additional references and follow-up interviews with the applicant should be scheduled.
  • Information from a referee should be kept as confidential as the law will allow.