Your People Experts

Reference Checking

Job References
Whether or not an employee was a great performer or just not a good fit for your organization, you generally don’t want them to be unemployed when they leave you. It’s easy to provide a reference for an employee who left on good terms, but what if the employee was terminated for harassment, theft, falsification, or other dishonest activity? A bad reference can be just as beneficial to a potential employer as a good one.

You can provide the standard response of dates of employment, job title, salary and perhaps if the employee is eligible to be rehired, but wouldn’t you like to know the good and the bad about a potential new hire? Giving or receiving a little more detail could help make an informed hiring decision. Before offering a negative reference however, weigh the pros and cons of doing so. While it’s not illegal to mention undesirable information, you need to make sure what you state is the truth, can be proven, and is job-related. Otherwise you may end up in litigation for defamation of someone’s character.

What Can I Ask or Tell
Basic information usually includes…

  • dates of employment
  • job title
  • rate of pay
  • are they eligible for rehire

Most companies prefer to remain neutral and only provide basic information. But you can ask or tell about an employee’s work habits and job description, whether they work well with others, or if they are responsible…just remember to never discuss medical or personal information…and keep it job-related and truthful. Also, make sure you document all questions asked and all responses given or taken.

Making Contact
You can write to a current or former employer to ask for a reference. This practice is OK when contacting references out of your local area, but calling for the reference is the favored method since it’s quick and easy. To get as much information as you can about your candidate, try contacting the current or previous employer beforehand and schedule a time that’s convenient for them to discuss your inquiries. This will allow them time to gather their thoughts and facts about the individual in question.

Also, if you’re fishing for specific job-related information, get some input from the supervisor of this new hire as to what he/she would like to know. Since you can ask for a description of the duties performed and work habits, a supervisor’s questions can help make an informed decision.

However you choose to ask for a reference, get the job applicant’s permission to contact their current or past employer(s) before making contact.

Personal References
Generally, when asking for personal references it’s a good idea to make sure you ask for someone other than a family member. Knowing the candidate will list someone close who will provide good feedback, let the reference know upfront to respond to your questions as they believe they would relate to the candidate’s work ethics and not to comment on anything too personal or include comments about medical issues.

Sample questions can include:

  • how long have they known the candidate
  • what is your relationship
  • what are some of the candidate’s strengths & weaknesses
  • how would they describe the candidate

Education References
If the position you are hiring for requires a level of education, make sure you follow up with the institution that provided the diploma or certificate.

When checking education references, find out the following:

  • is the school accredited
  • what were the dates of attendance
  • do they in fact offer the type of diploma or certificate the candidate presented
  • did the candidate receive the diploma, honors or work on the projects they listed

Keep in mind that some schools may require a letter of authorization from the candidate before releasing information.

Process & Documentation
When going through your reference check process, make sure you document the company you contacted or who contacted you; person you spoke with, how the contact was made (written or phone); questions you asked or responded to. Also note if you were unable to reach a reference and the date & time of your attempt. Note and/or keep copies of any records or letters that are sent or received.

Additional Tips:

  • Require all job references go through the HR Department. This will help eliminate the concern of a supervisor or coworker asking or saying something that may not be appropriate or legal.
  • Make sure you process all your reference checks in a fair and consistent manner. Don’t ask for contact references for Candidate A and not for Candidate B. Also keep in mind that it is illegal for an employer to give a negative or false employment reference (or refuse to give a reference) because of a person’s race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. CLICK HERE for more information from the EEOC.
  • If you ask for references, contact those references. Don’t have the candidate list employment or personal references if you don’t plan on following up with them.
  • If you use a third-party to verify your background screening and references, please note the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) has specific requirements and protocol. EAF members can LOGIN to the members only website and check out our FCRA Toolkit for more information.

In addition to the information above, please note that some states do have reference check guidelines CLICK HERE to review those guidelines.

EAF responds to hundreds of hotline calls and emails monthly. We would be happy to answer any interesting questions you may have too! Contacts us at [email protected] or 407.260.6556

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Employers Association Forum, Inc.
640 E State Road 434, Suite 3100
Longwood, FL 32750

Phone 407.260.6556 Fax 407.260.2876
Email [email protected]


EAF provides information about current developments in labor and employment law. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. Questions requiring legal advice should be addressed to the attorney of your choice. EAF members may be able to obtain a legal interpretation through our FREE Legal Hotline.