Resurrecting the Reference Check!

Resurrecting the Reference Check!

by Sara Bennett | November 30, 2020

0 Author-Jeanne, Hiring.Best Practices get connected


Make “Trust but Verify” a Foundational Principle of Your Hiring Process.

Its amazing to me how employers will make the decision to hire someone without first speaking to a former employer – someone who has supervised their work and can comment on their performance.  From my perch, skipping that important step in the hiring process, no matter how much you “love the candidate” is likely to create some post hire surprises, if not out and out mistakes.   Call me old fashioned, but the “trust but verify” mantra has always been an integral part of my hiring process.   It’s a mantra that’s not always easy to do, but it’s always important.

That is not to say there are not good reasons that have led recruiters to rationalize the decision not to check references.

Legal Concerns About Reference Checks.

For sure there is legal buzz about the liabilities attached to an employer who gives a reference that ultimately damages an employee’s chances for employment.  These legal concerns have resulted in policies limiting “reference” responses to dates of employment and eligibility for rehire.  If you go thru HR to get a reference, that is more than likely the response you get.  But if you go directly to a supervisor, particularly a supervisor who has been asked by the candidate to provide a reference, you often can get much more, particularly if how you conduct the reference check is all about getting more.

Are Reference Providers Candid?

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 often get 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!

The Facts Checks About Reference Checks

From my experience there are 5 important talking points about reference checks that should encourage recruiters to use the reference check to “trust but verify”:

  1. The requirement to check references BEFORE hiring, is seen by candidates, current employees, and the courts as a sign you take the hiring process seriously. Checking references is not just a way to detect candidates who are not as they seem, but also a way to uncover factual issues about a candidate’s work or life history that need to be uncovered before the candidate is hired, avoiding claims of negligent hiring, should something go dramatically wrong with whoever you’ve hired.


  1. The chances of a reference provider being held legally liable for their comments during a reference check 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.


  1. 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.  In that context, a reference check is considered an invaluable source of information about the candidate.


  1. The information gathered during a reference check can enhance the hiring decision and facilitate better employee retention in those critical first 90 days post hire. 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.


  1. A good recruiter has a lot more control over the candor of the reference provider than they think. It all depends on how they tone up the reference, the quality of the questions they ask, and how deeply they are willing to go to uncover what’s real.

So, let’s talk technique.

Here’s some of the “best practices” used by the PACE team as either a part of our candidate vetting process or methods, we use to get reference contacts to provide us with useful info.  These are practices we know work.


  1. Be Transparent About Your Reference Check “Policies” – Early and Always!

We always let candidates know up front that as part of our vetting process we will be talking 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.

By making the reference check a visible part of the hiring process right from the beginning, you can improve the candor of the candidate’s responses throughout the process.  As example, the question – What do you think your previous employer will tell us about how you get along with coworkers? – is much more likely to reveal the relevant truth about the candidate’s behavior, than “How would you describe your ability to get along with coworkers?”


  1. Ask the candidate to provide a list of references.

Ask the candidate to provide the names and contact information for people who have directly supervised or managed their work.   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 needs to stay off limits, make sure you get the names of supervisors on previous jobs.


  1. Tee up your reference conversation strategically.

Let the reference provider know a little about the job the former employee is applying for, and that you are calling them with the candidate’s awareness and permission.

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. 

Our goal is to make sure the job we’re hiring for is a good fit for John and your comments might help me make the right decision for him and our company.  

People are always more cooperative with people they like, so make a point to be your personable self.  Not too formal, but serious!


  1. Level 1 questions start the conversation and get answers to basic information you need to get confirmed…
  • John says he worked for you from ___________ to ______________. Is that about right?  (Don’t forget to confirm dates of employment.  It’s the only way you have to  uncover gaps in a candidate’s  work / life history that you need to know about.)
  • 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-hireable? (Why not?)


  1. Level 2 questions ask your contact to comment on information already provided to the candidate.

The key here is to demonstrate that you are invested in knowing as much about John as you can before you hire him. The fact that you have already taken the time to learn about John from John himself before calling them, will encourage their cooperation.  They’ll know your serious.

  • John has described for me what he considers to be his most important strengths in the job he did for you. I would be interested in comparing your observations with his self-assessment.  How would you describe what made him successful at what he did for you?   Tell me you thought were his most important strengths. 

He said it a little differently – would you agree with his comments? 

  • 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? 
  • Did the two of you ever discuss those improvement areas together?
  • The job we are looking at John 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? OR – I realize he didn’t do that for you, but do you have an opinion about how he might perform in that type of role?
  • John has described several things that he did that he thinks were important contributions to your company. I would love to hear what you describe as his most important contribution/achievement?

Your goal for level 2 questions is twofold – 1) to tap into your contact’s insights about your candidate’s actual behavior on the job, and 2) to either affirm or call into question the candidate’s willingness to self-report accurately.


  1. Level 3 questions are designed to go deeper into the former supervisor’s observations of John’s performance..
  • When you replaced John, what qualities did you look for in the person who replaced him?
  • How did his work compare to other people you have had in this role?
  • Was there anything about John’s work that you wished he would have changed but was never discussed between the two of you? Something that you just never brought up to him? 
  • What can you tell me about John that isn’t on his resume?
  • 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?
  • How far do you think John can advance in a role like I’ve described earlier?  Do you think it is a role that will move him along in his career? That will better tap into his full potential?  (Describe)
  • 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?
  • John said he ran into a challenge with some of the changed expectations for his work that he thought were coming from your boss. I would love your comment on that perception. 


  1. End the conversation with a summary of what you’ve heard and how you will handle the information provided.

Thank you so much for your time.  I am hearing that you think John would be a good “fit” for the role he has applied for and that it would challenge him in just the right way.  Your comments pretty much reflected what John told me about himself, so I feel really positive that I can count on him to give me accurate descriptions of the work and contributions he has made.  You’ve suggested that we watch for signs that he might get impatient with the learning process, and we’ll be on the watch for that.    

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 the bullets that come from a bad hire.  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 reference checking into your hiring process – helping you “trust but verify.”



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 40 years.

A 4-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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