How to Do a Reference Check

Mary Gormandy White
reference check questionnaire

When hiring employees, it's a good idea to check their references. Job application forms typically include space for the names and contact information for three to five professional references. If the form you use does not request that type of information, you can ask candidates to submit a list of professional references as a supplement to their application.

How to Contact References

Reference checks are typically conducted over the telephone or via email.

Telephone

It's generally best to contact references by telephone. Johanna Rothman of the Rothman consulting group says that phone calls are best for "off-the-cuff" references, pointing out that "people say things in a phone call they will not write in an email."

Pros:

  • When you speak with references on the telephone, you'll likely get their immediate impressions based on the questions you ask.
  • You will be able to pick up on nonverbal cues that may be meaningful, such as whether they sound uncertain or certain of the information they provide.

Cons

  • While you can (and should) take notes while speaking to people in this context, you will not have an indisputable verbatim record of what the other person said.
  • Not everyone is willing to take phone calls from people they do not know.

Email

It is also acceptable to check references via email.

Pros:

  • This method can be particularly effective with applicants who have references who live in another country that is several time zones away, as it can be difficult to catch up with someone by phone in this situation.
  • It is also beneficial for documentation purposes; you have a record of what was asked and when, along with the reply.

Cons:

  • Not everyone will respond via email. Some people may not even open emails from people they don't know, while others will not be comfortable putting this type of information in writing.
  • When people do reply by email, you don't get a sense of their immediate response to your questions; instead, they'll have time to carefully consider what they want to say. They may even contact the applicant for input.

Dual Method

Since there are pros and cons to both telephone and email methods, it's a good idea to consider using both methods when possible. Start out contacting references by telephone, assuming that it is reasonable to do so in light of time zone differences.

If you are unable to reach the person and don't receive a return call after three or so attempts over a span of a few days, send an email that includes all the questions you planned to ask in a telephone conversation.

What to Ask

When checking references - whether you are speaking with people who know the candidate on a personal or professional level - keep the inquiry job related. Ask questions carefully selected to get the person's impression of how the applicant is likely to perform in the particular job for which the person is being considered.

Sample Questionnaire

Click the image within this section to download a sample reference check questionnaire. The document is set up as a fill-in form, so you can customize it with the candidate's name and the job title under consideration, as well as take notes directly on the form for your records. You can also edit the questions if your needs are different than the sample questions provided here and save it for later use. You can print the form to use when speaking to references, or complete it electronically and save to your hard drive or data other storage device.

Example Questions

Examples of questions to ask:

  • Get the reference to let you know his or her relationship to the applicant, in terms of the context in which they know each other and how long they have been acquainted.
  • Explain what is involved in the job the person has applied for and ask the reference to share insights regarding how they feel the candidate will do.
  • Ask the reference to quantify their impression of how well-suited the person is for the job, such as with a rating scale of one to five, with five being 'highly successful' and one being 'not likely to do well.'
  • Ask if there is additional relevant, job-related information the person feels you should know when making your hiring decision.

What to Avoid

Avoid asking anything that would lead the reference to provide you with information that you cannot lawfully use when considering the candidate, which includes anything related to protected class characteristics.

Don't ask a reference anything that you should not ask an interviewee. This is important throughout the applicant screening process to protect your organization against allegations of discriminatory hiring practices. If a reference starts to share this type of information, stop the person before he or she elaborates, clarifying that your interests are specifically focused on determining the person's ability to do the job rather than personal characteristics.

Important Consideration

Even if applicants bring in pre-written letters of recommendation, it is still a best practice to check references yourself. One reason is that it's important to follow the same procedures with everyone you are considering for the position. Additionally, when someone proactively provides a reference letter, you don't really have any way of knowing that it is genuine unless you speak with the person who wrote it.

How to Do a Reference Check