Reference Checks – Don’t Leave Home Without Them!

Reference Checks – Don’t Leave Home Without Them!

by Sara Bennett | November 30, 2020

0 Author-Jeanne, Hiring Strategies and Tactics get connected


“Trust but Verify” – a Foundational Component of Hiring Excellence!

I always find it curious to learn just how many employers make hiring decisions without first speaking to a former employer – someone who has supervised the employee’s performance in the past and is in a position to make an “informed” comment on their “at work” performance. From our perch, skipping that important step in the hiring process, no matter how much you believe you can trust a candidate”, is teeing yourself up for an unforced error – a hiring surprise, if not an out and out hiring mistake. Call me old fashioned, but the “trust but verify” mantra has always been an integral part of PACE’s hiring process – and we have made some recent changes in how we use the reference check to even more fully integrate into our candidate vetting. For us, the reference check is not just a piece of compliance done after the offer is made, but its an integral part of a smart and thoughtful vetting process.

This blog has been written to make the case for incorporating the reference check early in your hiring process and viewing it as one of the most important tools in a recruiter’s candidate vetting toolkit. We’ll walk our readers thru the common beliefs about reference checks, offering ways to dispel “old” concerns.  

Legal Concerns   

There has always been buzz about the legal liabilities that might fall to an employer who gives a reference that ultimately damages an employee’s chances for employment. These legal concerns have resulted in many companies adapting policies that limit “reference” responses to dates of employment and eligibility for rehire. We think that’s unfortunate.

Concerns About Objectivity 

Another reason for not checking references is concern that a previous employer will not be candid – that their comments will either deceptively put the candidate in a bright light, or the opposite – purposefully do them harm. These concerns can be well founded –  fueled by the candidate themselves. “I’m not quite sure what they will tell you about my work. They were pretty upset when I gave them notice.” Oh, to hear the full story behind that comment!

Concerns About Relevancy

Some companies don’t use references because they don’t find value in the information that is uncovered, believing that how a candidate behaved in another environment isn’t really relevant to how they will behave in our environment. It’s just another version of the  infamous “that’s not going to be an issue here” syndrome.  Big mistake!!!!!

What We Know About Reference Checks!

Based on our experience using the reference check as one of the more important tools in our vetting toolkit, there are several talking points about references that we want to put in front of our readers…..

  • We know that incorporating the reference checks into the hiring process let’s everyone know we take the hiring process seriously.  A hiring process that requires a hiring manager or their delegate to check a candidate’s work history references BEFORE hiring is seen by most candidates, current employees, and courts of law as a good thing.  It’s an essential ingredient if defending a case against negligent hiring, but it also sets the stage for a prospective new hire to trust that they are joining a company who selects its employees carefully – with thought and purpose, not just hiring the first person who “passes.”
  • The chances of someone providing a reference, even providing negative information during a reference, being held legally liable for their comments are not great. To show liability the employee would have to prove 1) that the information obtained was false, 2) that it was provided with the malicious intent to damage the employee, and 3) that actual damages occurred.  Proving all three elements is not a challenge that most attorneys are quick to take on.
  • The reference report is the only information obtained during the hiring process that isn’t provided by the candidate themselves. Think about it. The interview, the application, all the show and tells of an effective hiring process start and end with info provided by the candidate. Only the reference check elicits information from a third, and supposedly neutral, party.  Every hiring decision needs to use multiple sources of information – perhaps most importantly information provided by the one source who has up close and personal knowledge of the employee’s performance.
  • The information gathered during a reference check can provide invaluable information about how to bring out the best in a new employee.  It can level the playing field for all candidates, particularly candidates who are more introverted or haven’t taken the latest “how to interview” class. It can provide helpful insights into how to best manage the employee once hired.
  • A good recruiter has a lot of control over the quality of information they gather in a reference check.  So, let’s talk technique.

Here’s some of the “best practices” that for us has made the reference check an integral part of a multi-step candidate vetting process.

Announce Your Reference Check Policies Early and Often….

There are good reasons to let all candidates know right up front that our vetting process includes a reach out to their former employers. To give that claim substance, we ask candidates to sign a consent form authorizing us to contact a former employer and releasing us (and our clients) from any liabilities ensuing from our open exchange of reference check information.

And the whys behind this part of our vetting process aren’t just legal. Studies have shown that candidates who know you will be checking references tend to self-report more accurately than candidates who believe their former employers will not be contacted.

As example, when we ask a candidate to describe their ability to get along with co workers we might get a difference respond answer if instead we asked – What will your previous employer tell us about how you get along with coworkers?

Ask the candidate to provide a list of references who can speak to their work!

Look where supervisors and managers appear on that list. If they only provide the names of co-workers or friends (“my supervisor may not respond”) file that away as a red flag and dig for more. If a current supervisor is off limits, make sure you get the names of supervisors on previous jobs. You are in control of what type of relationship you will accept as a bonafide reference.

Focus Your Reference Conversation on Verification not Opinion

There is much to be said about how to conduct an effective reference check conversation. Here’s just a few tips…

  • Start by letting the reference provider know a little about the role you want to fill and that you would like them to verify the information the candidate has already provided you.

John is applying for a job to work in our service department, leading a team of 2. We are an automotive parts distribution company and how we deliver service is extremely important to the success of our company. .    

He gave me your name and permission to talk to you because he believed you would speak candidly with me about your experience of him as your employee. He felt you were in a position to verify certain pieces of information he provided us in his interview relevant to the job he is applying for. 

  • Ask the easy questions first….

John says he worked for you from ___________ to ______________. Is that about right? 

He said his role was __________________________________. Is that right?

Did you directly supervise his work?

He said he gave notice to you when he left because ________________________. Is that right?

Did he report to anyone else while he worked for your company?

Is he considered re-hirable? (Why not?)

  • Confirm the accuracy of the candidate’s self reports

 John has described what he thinks are his most important contributions in the work he did for you. I would be interested in comparing your observations with his self-assessment. 

How would you describe the factors that made John successful in his role?   

He also said that he was working to improve a few things that he felt would have made him better in his job. What would those be from your perspective? The job John is interested in requires him to (supervise two people, take the lead in our customer service area, etc.) He believes he could handle that type of role.  What did he do in your work environment that is most similar to this role?

  • Keep in mind you’re looking for two things
      • Insights into John’s actual behavior on the job, and
      • An assessment of John’s willingness to provide accurate self-report
  • Additional questions that might be helpful…..

How did John’s performance compare to other people you have had in this role?

Was there anything about John’s work that you wished he would have changed?  Did you discuss with John?  

How did you see John grow as a professional during the time he worked for you?

I’m curious, how long before John gave notice were you aware he was thinking of leaving? Did he show any signs of stress or dis engagement?

Did you agree with his reasons for leaving?

You say such positive things about John which makes me curious why you didn’t try to convince him to stay when he gave notice or did you?

What type of management do you think will work best for John? Is there a type of management style that you think won’t work – that might bring out his worse?

What might a future supervisor like to know about John to ensure he is successful in his new role?

Don’t Eliminate a Candidate Solely Because of Negative Reference..

…instead consider it a red or pink flag that needs more exploration. There’s always 2 sides to every story. Ask the candidate to tell you their side.

Reference Checks 2024 Style

The processes used to check references has changed dramatically in the last five years. It used to be a very labor intensive process requiring either a hiring manager or their recruiter to chase down a former employer, get them to participate in the process, and ask all the right questions without giving the reference provider a chance to opt out. Today, employers have access to automated versions of customizable reference check questions that are self managed by the candidate. The recruiters job is simply to invite the candidate into a reference check portal and the portal does all the rest – including automated follow ups to non responders. Reference reports come back quickly – we’ve actually found that an automated process increases reference provider’s response levels – it makes it quick and easy for them to respond.

Most automated systems have built in fraud detection features that can verify the authenticity of the reference provider and ensure that references will be gathered in a standardized manner – important to avoiding bias.

We’ve been using an automated reference check process for several years now which has allowed us to introduce the reference check early in our candidate vetting process even before a candidate has made the short list of candidates we provide to our clients. This has been a huge time saver for our staff because it has impacted the level of “candor” candidates are willing to provide, knowing that in the end we will “trust but verify. ” Trust me when I say that when you make the reference check a serious component of the hiring process, it changes the tone of the vetting process.

Final Thoughts?

When reference checks are done right  they can be one of the most impactful sources of information in your hiring process – improving the quality of your hires, dodging big and small bullets that are always part of the hiring process. Done wrong, they add very little value and can sometimes do more harm than good.

We hope that the information we are providing in this blog will give you a heads start on ways to incorporate that “trust but verify” component into your next hiring journey.

If you’d like to add the reference check component to your hiring process but don’t have the automated tools or people to do it right, give us a call. Part of our HIRING HELP service platform is your ability to purchase specific candidate vetting services on an as needed basis. Our automated resources allows us to price reference check services at a very reasonable cost per report.    


PACE Staffing Network is one of the Puget Sound’s premier staffing /recruiting agencies and has been helping Northwest employers find and hire employees based on the “right fit” for over 45 years.

A 5-time winner of the coveted “Best in Staffing” designation , PACE is ranked in the top 2% of staffing agencies nationwide based on annual surveys of customer satisfaction.

PACE services include temporary and contract staffing, temp to hire auditions, direct hire professional recruiting services, Employer of Record (payroll) services, and a large menu of candidate assessment services our clients can purchase a la carte.

To learn more about how partnering with PACE will make a difference to how you find and hire employees,  contact our Partner Services and Solutions team at 425-637-3312, email us or visit our website.

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