How To Check References: A Step-by-Step Guide

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 2 November 2022 | Published 12 October 2021

Updated 2 November 2022

Published 12 October 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Knowing how to conduct a quality reference check is an important step in the recruitment process. It can also be useful for candidates to understand how a potential employer may check their credibility through the references provided. Gaining input from a candidate's previous employers is crucial to help you get an idea of who you would be hiring. In this article, we describe how to check references, explore how to evaluate a reference check with confidence and also answer some FAQs about reference checking.

How to check references

A resume is a formal document that provides an outlook of a candidate's professional qualifications. It includes their relevant work experience, skills, education and relevant accomplishments. Many candidates promote their best selves on their resumes and act professionally in an interview. However, without talking to previous employers there is no way of understanding their past job performance.

Potential employees sometimes provide the contact information of their references on their resumes. Alternatively, they are available on request. Reference checks are necessary for validating a candidate's interview answers. Performing reference checks can help you determine if a potential employee has the relevant experience and if they'd be a good fit for the culture of the workplace. The following steps can outline how to check references:

1. Ask the candidate for their references

Firstly, you can ask to collect three references from a potential employee if the candidate hasn't already provided details of their references on their resume or at the interview. Preferred references are often their most recent manager or supervisor. Obtaining professional references from the candidate is ideal. Personal references may be biased. Tailor your reference choices, choose the ones that best relate to the job the candidate is applying for.

Related: How To Write a Resume Reference List (With Examples)

2. Prepare the questions you want to ask

When preparing the questions you wish to ask during the candidate's reference check, it can be helpful to refer back to the interview notes. Consider asking for examples of the candidate's recent work experience to verify the information provided on their resume and in the interview. You can prepare for your call by having a list of questions ready. This can help the conversation to flow naturally and encourage the referee to provide more than a yes or no response. You may start with some basic questions:

  • What is the applicant's name?

  • How are you acquainted with the applicant?

  • How long did the candidate work for your organisation?

  • What type of work did the candidate do?

Then you could move on to some more specific questions:

  • What are the candidate's strengths and weaknesses?

  • Would you rehire them? If not, why not?

  • What was their best accomplishment?

  • What were the candidate's primary responsibilities?

  • How would you rate their work?

  • Were they dependable?

  • How did they support coworkers?

  • Did they complete the tasks assigned to them?

  • How did they get along with other people?

  • Do they have good communication and listening skills?

  • Did they require a lot of supervision or work independently?

  • How did they handle work-related stress?

  • What are their most impressive skills or qualities?

  • How well did they work as part of a team?

  • Was the applicant punctual and time-efficient?

  • What additional training would they benefit from?

  • How did they respond to constructive criticism?

  • What are their weaknesses?

  • Why did they leave their last position?

  • Is there anything else you would like to add?

  • Is there anyone else you suggest I speak with?

You can also ask about the candidate's soft skills:

  • Is the candidate a friendly part of the team?

  • Are they motivated?

  • How do they handle a challenge?

  • Do they have creative skills?

  • Were they flexible?

  • Did they show leadership skills?

  • Did they show integrity?

Related: Reference Check Questions: What to Expect

3. Contact the references

Consider taking the call yourself as you may have a thorough understanding of the position and may wish to ask tailored questions specific to the role. The individuals you are calling may be at the same job level as you. This may help the conversation flow better and prompt more detailed answers.

Try to find a quiet space and inform the reference the call could take up to half an hour. Ensure you ask the reference if they are happy to provide information, as some may not. To prepare them for your questions, consider introducing yourself and your role in the company and outline the position the candidate has applied for. Consider equipping yourself with a pen and pad as you may find taking notes useful. At the end of the call, you can thank the reference for their time.

4. Evaluate reference checks

The next step involves determining whether your initial impression of the candidate was accurate. A positive outcome may mean the reference checks prove the candidate is trustworthy and a good fit for the role. There are certain points to look out for when conducting a reference check, even if the candidate performed well in their interview. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Positive and negative feedback from past employers

  • Past employers who just provide the facts of employment without elaborating

  • Their recent employment history is relevant to the role

  • Unexplained gaps in employment

  • Date deception (stretching dates to cover gaps in employment)

  • Careers with unusual and unexplainable titles

  • Their previous employers have practical but favourable things to say about them

  • Past employees contradicting what the candidate has said

  • If an applicant tells you not to call a particular reference

  • Reluctance to explain why they left a job

  • Skill stretching

  • They can back up that they have the right experience in certain processes or programs

  • They have a good collection of soft-skills

5. Make your final decision

Once you have spoken to all the necessary references and evaluated the information provided, you can make a final decision on which candidate to hire. Your final decision may depend on contributing factors such as the resume, cover letter, interview performance and details from the reference checks. Consider matching the information provided by the referees with the job description to determine which candidate is a suitable fit for the role and offers long-term potential.

Related: How To Hire Employees: The Ultimate Guide (With Tips)

Frequently asked questions

Picking the right candidate for the job is vital for the workplace culture. Reference checks are typically such an important part of this process and can tell you what you need to know about a candidate beyond face value. Below we answer some frequently asked questions about reference checks:

Why perform a reference check?

During the interview process, a candidate presents the best possible version of themselves. A reference check process allows a third party to give an objective and realistic view of the individual. Apart from ensuring you're hiring the right person for the role, the insight gained from reference checks can tell you how to prepare the new employee, or what training they might need before they start.

When and how should you do a reference check?

Reference checks are often carried out after the interview process is complete. At this stage, you may have shortlisted the final candidates. You can save yourself and the company valuable time by only contacting shortlisted candidates.

Related: Short-Listing Candidates: How To Complete the Process

What's the difference between personal and professional references?

A personal reference is someone who has not worked in a professional environment with the candidate. Personal references tend to discuss the positive personal characteristics of a candidate such as their values and personality. If an applicant has done volunteer work, that would be an example of a personal reference. A professional reference is usually a past client, manager or colleague who can recommend them based on their work ethic, attitude and skills.

Can unsuccessful candidates ask why they failed a reference check?

If the organisation has made a reference report for the unsuccessful candidate, they are entitled to access it. This can help candidates know what they have done well or poorly. They can then make adjustments to their resume and perhaps work on some more education and skills.

Related: Soft Skills: Definitions and Examples

Why are soft skills important?

Soft skills are extremely important to look for in a candidate. You cannot always rely on just education and experience alone. Education and experience are ‘required' and soft skills are ‘desired'. Communication skills, motivation and attention to detail are all examples of great soft skills that employees need to look for. They are traits and behaviours that create a friendly and cohesive workplace culture of individuals with great soft skills.

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