ABC’s of Hiring #9: Reference Checking is a Must

To minimize hiring mistakes, always perform your due diligence and check references. As much as 50% of reference checks reveal discrepancies. It is as important as every other step in the hiring process.

Here’s what you need to know:

Legal issues

The Fair Credit Reporting Act as amended in 1998 treats a reference the same as a consumer investigative report and requires that individuals consent to reference checking and/or background checks and they must be informed of any negative information and be given the opportunity to respond.

Employers can be liable for providing negative references and must be very careful not to give any untrue information when answering reference check questions. Negative references based on retaliation, defamation or disclosing confidential information are wholly inappropriate and illegal. Conversely, if references are reluctant to answer your questions, probe deeper, and then contact more references. Perform a more thorough background check as well.


The whole idea of reference checking is to compare and confirm what the candidate has said in the interview and on the resume. You want to validate that they are capable of doing what you need done.

  • Prepare before you call by making a list of specific questions.
  • Have HR verify employment dates, education, salary, duties and responsibilities.
  • Probe what red flags, questions or concerns were raised during the interview.
  • Hiring managers should try to speak only to former bosses.
  • Don’t bother with personal references.
  • Have the candidate provide a pre-screened list to avoid wasting time.
  • References should cover relevant experience from the previous 10-15 years.


References feel compelled to be honest, forthright and candid. Be careful who you ask to validate your skills, experience and behavior on the job.

  • Never lie about anything on your resume or on the application.
  • Always notify your references to expect a call and what it’s about.
  • Provide a copy of your resume to your references so everyone has the same information.
  • Always prepare your references and don’t assume they will only say nice things about you.
  • Only provide references that you are comfortable with and know your work.
  • Coach your references on what is important in this position and why you feel qualified.


Inherently, no one enjoys being a reference because it can be too unstructured and open-ended. Make it easy on them when introducing yourself and tell them you have specific questions to ask and will only take 5 to 10 minutes of their time. Their receptivity will increase significantly for your benefit.

  • The candidate has indicated an interest in “position title and brief description”. Do you feel he is prepared to perform in this role?
  • Describe your relationship to the candidate, i.e., position, length of time.
  • How would you rate the candidate’s performance as compared to all others that you have ever supervised in similar roles?
  • What is the candidate’s single strongest skill or asset? Need for improvement?
  • What do they need to work on to continue their career development and professional growth?
  • Why did they leave? Given the opportunity, would you hire this person again?
  • What else can you tell us that may help us get to know the candidate better?
  • Using the specific 2 or 3 primary requirements of the position, ask the reference whether the candidate has those specific skills or experience.
  • How do they interact with co-workers, superiors, customers, others?
  • If you could talk with their new supervisor and provide advice on how to get this person off to a good start, what would you say to them?

Oftentimes, it can be beneficial to use a professional executive recruiter to conduct the reference checking. This limits the liability of the employer and still gathers the information desired.


Reference checking is a vital part of the hiring process and should be an integral part of your best practices as an employer.


Bob Harrington Associates has been in the executive search business for 20 years and can help you find the best people for your business.

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