Real Reference Checks Require These 8 Steps

A few days ago I received a call from a business owner conducting a reference check on a former co-worker of mine. She kept me on the phone for nearly a half hour to ask me several probing questions about the potential hire. I’ve fielded many reference calls over the years, but none of them were as strong as this one.

The typical call I get lasts five minutes with the reference checker basically saying, “We adore this candidate. You love ‘em, too, right?” They make the call hoping I won’t say anything that will cause concern about the candidate which would throttle their company back to square one of the hiring process.

These actions will help you conduct a real reference check instead of a quick cursory call:

  1. Ask the candidate for additional references you can call. Obtain the names of managers and co-workers beyond who is included on the reference list provided by the candidate. You should have some names to suggest based on the examples the candidate provided you during your interviews. These additional references will increase your chances of getting a legitimate review of the candidate’s work performance instead of a pre-planned endorsement. And if the candidate says, “No, don’t call anybody except for the list I gave you,” then you have a new issue to discuss.
  2. Take responsibility for the reference checks. The hiring manager is best qualified to discuss specifics of the job and have a supervisor-to-supervisor discussion about the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t delegate reference checks to a junior member of your team who is not involved in the candidate’s hiring process.
  3. Clear your schedule … a good reference check requires time to dig into specific details about the candidate. Don’t try to squeeze in two calls between meetings. You’ll be able to check the calls off your to-do list, but you won’t achieve the outcome.
  4. … then clear your mind. Remember that blue flash memory eraser thing from the movie Men In Black? Pretend your pen is one of those, and erase your biases about the candidate before you make each phone call. Erase the attitude that you really, really hope the call goes well. Replace it with skepticism that there are details about the candidate you haven’t uncovered yet and you need to discover them on this call.
  5. Put on your sales hat. Some references you call won’t want to provide meaningful data on the candidate. You’ll have to convince them to be candid. One of my pleas goes something like this: “One manager to another, I want to know if I hire this person, will I be calling you back in six months asking why you didn’t warn me about the train wreck I was inviting into my company?”
  6. Sharpen your pencil. You should take detailed notes during the call. Don’t rely on your memory. Notes will enable you to compare conversations from different references and identify trends.
  7. Prepare a list of questions to ask on the call. Most of your reference-check questions should be aversion-based. Don’t ask only questions that are broad in scope (e.g., Can you tell me about John Smith?). Ask questions about aversions you have uncovered (e.g., Can you give me examples of John reacting to criticism? Any examples of him reacting poorly to criticism?). That being said, two questions I ask on every reference check call are “Why is he/she no longer with your company?” and “You seem to really like this person, but I’m sure they’re not perfect — none of us are. What one area of theirs could be improved?”
  8. React to the data you receive and ask follow-up questions in order to achieve a thorough understanding of the candidate’s work history. Questions such as “Why?” and “Can you give me a specific example?” help you obtain the truth.

Even after reading this list, you still might be hesitant to invest additional time into reference checking. And you might be downright distressed about calling past employers the candidate hasn’t listed as a reference. Here’s an example of when these tactics worked for my company:

Article Continues Below

A candidate provided us with several business references, each of whom gave positive feedback. A co-worker of mine was an acquaintance of the candidate’s former boss (who wasn’t listed as a reference) and we called to get his perspective. The former boss said the candidate left his company because he was caught stealing and that several co-workers thanked him for firing the man, whose arrogance regularly offended them. “I wouldn’t hire him again if you gave me a million dollars,” said the former boss. I’m sure glad we made that extra call.

Happy hiring!

Jim Roddy is the president of Jameson Publishing and author of the book “Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer,” which features hiring lessons, interview best practices, and recruiting strategies for managers through the perspective of a cancer-surviving executive. For more information on the book, go to


20 Comments on “Real Reference Checks Require These 8 Steps

  1. Great article with immediately implementable advice, Jim. I certainly agree with all of your suggestions.
    One of my favorite techniques for developing questions to ask references is to utilize the same behavior-based questions I used during the interview. Here’s a very simple example. If I asked the candidate, “Tell me about a time when you were under a lot of pressure with a large number of competing priorities. How did you prioritize your work? Were you able to get everything done on time? Did you feel you had to sacrifice quality in order to meet your deadlines? What did you learn from this experience?” I might then tell the reference that the job requires the ability for this person to handle a large volume of competing priorities in a high-stress environment (and probably would describe what I meant by that) and then ask them if they can tell me about a time when this was the case when that person worked for them. I’d follow up by asking how the person seemed to handle the stress, how they prioritized (did they ask their manager, did they seek help from co-workers, etc), and whether everything was done on time and with quality.
    Another option… if the answer the candidate gave me to the question during the interview included an example of something that happened while working with/for the reference, I might bring up that situation, tell the reference what the candidate described, and ask them if that’s the way they saw the same situation.
    I generally get much better, higher-quality, and valuable (vs cursory) information by using this technique.


  2. In my opinion, Skill Survey makes the BEST option for the most accurate information. We love it for hiring the best nurses – they have science behind their surveys – customized per type of job we hire for…the added plus for us is the Passive Candidate Report that gives us candidates to source! We, as Recruiters have to control the “who” the candidates enter, but after that – it’s wonderful! Our hiring managers love it.

  3. Great article with practical advice for improving what can often be a “messy” art. My only qualm is that calling on references the candidate did not provide can put a bad taste in that candidate’s mouth, and can even be seen as an invasion of privacy.

    Another way of getting more accurate references is to tell the candidate which of their previous supervisors you’d like to be connected with. That way, if you get any hesitation, there’s your red flag! And, if not – call them up and look for intonation: If that previous employer would not emphatically rehire that candidate, keep pressing…

  4. Thanks to everyone for your kind words about this article.

    @Erin: I agree with your point. The example I illustrated didn’t include a conversation with the candidate first because my co-worker had a personal relationship with the former boss. It was more of a friend-to-friend call. We honestly expected the ex-boss to lavish the candidate with praise and were caught off-guard with the damning information he provided to us.

    @Susan: I agree with your behavior-based approach. We had a candidate who left what seemed like a good job after just one year and he said it was “a mutual understanding” but he wasn’t at liberty to say much else. All the other data we had said he was a good fit for our job, but this situation was still hanging out there and his former boss wouldn’t call us back despite my repeated attempts. Very suspicious. So I put in a call to an long-time employee to ask what the story was — and to see if it jived with the candidate’s story. The rep was positive about the candidate but very vague about why he left. The rep later called me from home to say, “I couldn’t tell you at work, but they forced him out and wouldn’t give him a reason, but the real reason they let him go was so the owner could give his son a job! [Name of candidate] was great to work with but he had the wrong bloodlines.” That data helped us understand the candidate was being up front with us. He’s been an excellent employee of ours for nearly a half decade … and our owner has committed his kids will work for other businesses, not ours.

  5. Great points. Reference checks can be time consuming, especially if you’re not fully prepared. You’re right though — blind references garner the best results. But encouraging employee referrals can help with the reference process too. If your current employees have recommendations on new hires they know in the field, hear them out. You’ll have one reference, contact information, and you can go from there. Cheers!

  6. Jim, thanks for the great and honest article. As you described, it is so important to take the necessary time and prepare for a reference check. As the owner of a boutique executive search firm, we pride ourselves on conducting thorough reference checks, to complement the chemistry and technical fit of our placements. I consider a reference to have been insightful and honest, only if I can get the individual to provide me with some true “areas of development” for the candidate. It takes some doing, and you have to work your way up to asking the question, but if a reference is willing to provide the positive AND negative attributes of the candidate, you can put assign more validity to the reference. Furthermore, rather than asking the typical “what are her weaknesses?”, we approach the subject by asking “what would it take for Sally to be a perfect 10 in her career?” We preface this by saying “we all have things that we’re working on in order to add more value and improve our contributions, and none of us are a perfect 10″… While it’s not foolproof, we have found a direct correlation between the tenure and fit of the candidate, and our ability to truly get to know them through these in depth references.
    Ken Schmitt
    President/Founder, TurningPoint Executive Search

  7. I recommend using Checkster, another automated reference checking system similar to SkillSurvey. We’ve been using this for over two years and have seen the following results:

    –dramatic reduction in recruiter time to collect and review references’ feedback
    –completion rate of about 2 days, on average
    –ability to capture more than the standard 2-3 references. You can control the minimum number the candidate needs to provide. We typically obtain 5 or 6 references’ feedback per candidate
    –you can customize the questions posed to the reference provider to get at exactly the information you want to know about the candidate
    –all feedback is summarized and anonymized, so references feel free to provide constructive, candid information about the candidates’ strengths, accomplishments and opportunities for improvement
    –the tool has mechanisms in place to identify and notify us of potentially fraudulent reference checks (great way to screen out those lacking integrity and honesty before they’re in the door!)
    –because the time element is reduced, we moved up the reference check in the selection process to occur prior to interviews, allowing recruiters to have more insightful information to share with hiring managers about the candidates they’re going to be meeting–it increases their ability to be true talent advisors to their hiring managers. The recruiters share areas to probe during the interview. By moving it up before the finalist decision is made, it also allows for healthy skepticism to remain in this step, as Jim mentions in the article.

    As the world continues to move to relying on social feedback about all sorts of products (think customer feedback ratings on Amazon, TripAdvisor, Yelp, etc.), reference providers are comfortable with providing similarly frank information about potential candidates for your jobs.

    I’d highly recommend looking at an automated solution like Checkster to maximize the value of the reference check process. It will more than pay for itself in the rich, robust information you can obtain about your potential talent and increase your overall quality of hires.

  8. @ Cheri: I think there are many people who would object to provide references prior to a pending offer.


  9. Hi, Keith–that was initially a concern of ours as well, but we have not found much resistance from candidates. You can decide where in your process you want to complete the references. Additionally, we don’t require candidates to list their current supervisor as a reference; they are free to use previous supervisors, colleagues, or clients as they choose. The product graphically show the recency and the length of the relationships the candidate has with their references, so you can also determine at a glance the freshness and depth of information you’re getting from the candidate.

    For executive candidates, we sometimes move the check to occur post offer to be sensitive to the nature of their positions. It’s up to you as an organization what practices you want to put in place.

  10. Well, a lot of common sense here, so I can only agree.

    I have a very, very strong issue with the fact of calling references the candidate did not provide though.
    Here’s why:

    1. First and foremost, it might simply be illegal in some countries, ethically disputable or contradictory with the guarantees provided to the candidate.

    2. Methodologically: we human beings naturally tend to give more weight to negative feedback than to positive one. Therefore instead of getting a balanced, global picture of a candidate’s track record, you might as well end up your quest for absolute objectivity with the exact opposite (even if most negative feedbacks are hardly as bad as the example provided above).
    I tend to think that Point 4 of the article only underlines this risk.

    3. There is no perfect, flawless candidate, just like there is no perfect company. Hiring remains a human process where once a reasonable amount of guarantees have been provided and test passed, sane subjectivity and trust should -and will anyway- apply.

    4. Risk: are you ready to freak out a great candidate who may not appreciate such a move?

  11. I certainly think reference checks are an imperative component of the hiring process, but apparently the former boss who responded to a phone inquiry by saying “…the candidate left his company because he was caught stealing and that several co-workers thanked him for firing the man, whose arrogance regularly offended them. ‘I wouldn’t hire him again if you gave me a million dollars’ hadn’t been well schooled by his HR or legal staff on the liabilities associated with making such volatile statements when providing a reference.

    Dave Arnold, Ph.D., J.D.

  12. Very interesting reading. I have been asked to do some research into giving up taking references for new employees which is an idea that causes me great concern. This view point is being taken due to a time issue and the fact that references seem now just to confirm dates and job title and nothing else. Its fascinating to see that other organisations seem to be conducting very indepth reference checking from previous employers.

  13. Thanks for commenting Feona. I don’t know what you’ll find in research, but anecdotally I’ve heard horror stories of hiring managers who didn’t conduct thorough reference checks and got burnt. If you follow the steps above and advice from other folks making comments, your business will be able to get value out of reference checks.

    One anecdote for you: Notre Dame is #1 in the country in football now, but it took them YEARS to recover from their lack of reference checking.

  14. Feona: Here’s more data that says, “For goodness sake, don’t stop conducting reference checks!

    References can help you detect dishonest applicants, survey indicates

    Twenty-nine percent of hiring managers who check applicants’ references say they’ve uncovered faked references in the process, a CareerBuilder survey finds. More than two-thirds of employers say they’ve changed their mind about an applicant after speaking to a reference, the survey found.

  15. Awesome article… I wished I knew these 8 points to do a reference check years ago. Can I please ask what are the typical questions you would ask during a reference check? Thanks

  16. Trevi: Here are 8 standard questions that I’ve asked during reference checks. The heart of the conversation is #3.

    1. What are your general thoughts on him/her?

    2. What three words would you use to describe him/her?

    3. I have some questions regarding his/her ability to (Identified Aversions).

    4. Explain the position we’re hiring for. Do you think that would be a good fit? How so?

    5. Tell me about their performance when they receive work assignments, takeaways, or projects. Did they turn in completed work within established timelines? Did they require reminders or multiple revisions to the work turned in?

    6.Did he/she have any signed agreements with your company that may limit his/her activities, e.g. non-compete, non-tamper, confidentiality or intellectual property agreements?

    7. Would you rehire him/her?

    8. Is there anything else you know about him/her that might be helpful in making our decision?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *