Conducting Reference Checks

Importance of Conducting Reference Checks

The hiring official may check references prior to offering employment.  One of the best sources for information related to an applicant is a former employer, unless the student has not had prior employment.  On-the-job performance is the most useful predictor of future success.  A “personal reference” can seldom give work-related information.

When conducting a reference check, hiring officials are encouraged to talk with a former supervisor.  The supervisor can speak specifically to an applicant’s quality and quantity of work, reliability, potential problem areas, and job behaviors.  It is recommended that hiring officials contact at least three past employers to find consistent trends in the applicant’s past performance.  Calling several employers will also help balance the information you receive 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.  It can be challenging to persuade the former employers to speak frankly about the candidate.  Oregon legislation (ORS.30.178) passed in 1995 protects current or former employers from civil liability when they, in responding to the request of prospective employers, disclose information about employees “in good faith”.  “Good faith” is violated if the information is knowingly false or deliberately misleading, is rendered with malicious purpose, or violates any civil right of the former employees (such as disclosure of confidential medical information, or other protected information).

Managing the Conversation with a Reference

  1. Identify yourself and the applicant and ask the reference if this is a good time to talk.
  2. Briefly describe the position.
  3. Assure the reference that the information they provide you will be held as confidential as the law allows.
  4. Confirm the dates of employment and the reference's relationship with the applicant.
  5. Verify the job titles, both formal and informal. 
  6. Inquire about job-related skills, experience and performance.  Ask open ended questions.
  7. Discuss attendance records, including unexcused absenteeism and tardiness.  Specific information, such as the average number of days absent or tardy per month, may be the most helpful.
  8. Inquire about reason for termination.  Although a personnel office can provide an official reason, a supervisor may be able to give a more thorough explanation.
  9. Ask about the possibility of rehire.  A former employer’s reluctance to rehire should be a cause for concern.  However, some firms have general policies prohibiting rehires.  If this is the case, it should be noted.
  10. Seek information about disciplinary actions.  It is important to know if the employee was ever reprimanded or disciplined and the reasons for this action.

Sample Questions

  • Tell me about (the candidate’s) job responsibilities?
  • Describe (candidate’s) ability to take on and learn new tasks.
  • In which areas does (candidate) need development/improvement?
  • Describe (candidate’s) organizational/time management skills.
  • How much supervision was needed?
  • Describe (candidate’s) communication skills with customers/co-workers/supervisors.
  • What did (candidate) accomplish at your company?  What changed as a result of his/her involvement?
  • What is the biggest change you have observed in (candidate)?  Where has there been the most growth?
  • What type of business correspondence did (candidate) compose?  Describe the quality of his/her writing including grammar, spelling and punctuation. 
  • If you could hire (candidate) today, would you?   Is he/she eligible for rehire?  If not, why not?

The information received from a reference is a critical part of your evaluation of each candidate.  If the reference raises any doubts, additional references and follow-up interviews with the candidate should be scheduled.   Never reveal the information received from a previous employer to the applicant.  This information is to be kept as confidential as the law will allow.  The information received from a reference must be filed with the recruitment file, separate from employee's files.