What Is an Employee Reference Check?

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Put yourself in the shoes of an employer. Would you want to hire strangers for important jobs without checking the validity of their application and interview statements? Human resource managers reach out to individuals named as references to verify information obtained during the hiring process. When an employer asks permission to conduct a pre-employment reference check, it’s great news that you’re still in the running for the job.

A reference check for employment refers to the vetting process that companies use to verify information provided by a job applicant. Contacting former supervisors and other individuals listed as references offers valuable insight on the applicant’s fit for a job vacancy.

What Is the Purpose of a Reference Check?

Hiring managers spend considerable time and money contacting references because their own job could be on the line if they hire people who don’t work out. References who know the applicant well are in the best position to comment on character, motivation, skill and performance. Thorough vetting of candidates ensures a fair and equitable selection process.

Other reasons for reference checks include:

  • Checking dates, degrees and employment history
  • Verifying job duties and work history
  • Narrowing down finalists for an interview or the job
  • Eliminating candidates who provide false information
  • Inquiring about previous disciplinary actions and problems
  • Assessing if the applicant can really do the job that is posted
  • Getting to the bottom of a previous job termination
  • Judging potential for professional growth

Do Employers Actually Contact References?

More often than not, employers check at least a couple references. Even temporary, seasonal or part-time workers often undergo an employment reference check to confirm identify, work history and education.

Jobs that involve working with vulnerable populations, driving vehicles, operating equipment or using keys typically require a criminal background check and a drug test. Positions that involve handling money may also include a check of credit history.

Who Are the Best References?

Whenever possible, include a current or previous boss on your list of references. Employers are particularly interested in hearing from supervisors who are assumed to be more objective references than personal references. Naturally, you may have some hesitation listing your current boss as a reference unless a job offer is extended. Employers should understand and not interpret that as a red flag.

High school students and recent college graduates have more latitude when it comes to listing references. Although supervisors are ideal, employers are also open to using teachers, professors, coaches, principals, youth leaders and clergy as references. A volunteer coordinator familiar with your community service contributions could also speak from the perspective of a supervisor.

If an employer indicates that you can use a friend or family member as a personal reference, let your reference know when to expect a call, explain the job you are seeking and mention the skills needed to do the job.

How Do I Obtain References?

Before approaching anyone, ask yourself if that person knows you well, has observed your work and will unequivocally speak highly of you. For instance, your team lead on a packing line may be able to offer better examples of your work ethic than the shipping manager you rarely see during your shift. Only ask people to be a reference if you’re sure that you can trust them to give you a positive recommendation.

Once you have identified at least three potential references, call or visit them in person to ask permission to include them on your list of references. Start by explaining that you are job hunting and would be honored to list them as a reference if they feel comfortable and have the time to help you. Always send a thank-you note after a reference is contacted.

Do I Have to Add My Cranky Boss as a Reference?

You do not need to include your current boss as a reference. However, don’t be surprised if an employer asks to speak with your current supervisor when you’re seriously being considered for the job.

If you are worried that your boss will sabotage your chances of getting a new position, you will have to decide whether to give permission or ask the hiring manager to contact previous supervisors instead. Favorable reviews from past supervisors can sufficiently offset other criticisms.

Employment Reference Check Forms

Human resource staff and hiring managers may not have time or interest in speaking directly to references. Therefore, many employers email standard pre-employment reference check forms to references listed on the candidate’s application.

Rating scales are common in addition to routine questions about degrees earned and work history. For example, a reference may be asked to rate an applicant’s time management skills on a scale from one to five with five being exceptional.

Employment Reference Check Companies

When applying for a job online, you may be asked to check a box giving permission for human resource staff or contracted employment reference check companies to contact your references.

Some companies prefer to outsource employment checks to professionals in the field whose sole purpose is to investigate an applicant’s background. In-depth reference checks can include such things as scoping out all the candidate’s social media accounts, meeting with references and verifying information on a resume.

Employment Reference Check Template

Employers often use a template with a standardized set of questions when seeking a reference over the phone or when getting statements in writing. The idea of a template is to ensure consistency while limiting possible hiring bias.

At a minimum, the form will inquire about the applicant’s dates of employment, job titles, job duties, attendance record, reasons for leaving and salary. Due to concerns about being sued for defamation of character, some employers will only release dates of employment and refuse to give a reference or recommendation letter.

Employment Reference Check Questions

Professional in the workplace are well versed in the types of questions that prospective employers like to ask when doing a reference check. To help them describe you in the best possible light, you may want to provide a copy of the job posting and your resume. That way, they can articulate what makes you an ideal candidate for the job.

Typical questions asked during a reference check include:

  1. How long have you known the candidate and in what capacity?

  2. How did the candidate contribute to your team? Please include examples.

  3. I am seeking to fill a position that requires an ability to work productively under stress and tight deadlines. Can you give me an example of how the candidate performed under similar circumstances?

  4. How easy or difficult was it to supervise this individual?

  5. What are the candidate’s greatest strengths?

  6. What professional development goals were discussed with the candidate?

  7. How would you rate the applicant compared to your other employees?

  8. If given the opportunity, would you hire this person again?

Employment Reference Checks After Hire

Typically, reference checks are done as a way to narrow down finalists or to make sure everything checks out toward the end of the hiring process. However, human resources may also want to speak to references if an issue later arises that doesn’t jive with the information on the application or resume. For instance, falsification of credentials discovered after hire is grounds for immediate termination from the organization once the lie is uncovered.