Reference Checks

What can I ask when conducting a reference check?  What should I say if someone calls my company looking for a reference for a past employee?  If the idea of conducting or responding to reference checks makes you nervous, you are not alone!  Here are some tips to ensure you get the information you need on prospective candidates and protect your company when answering questions about past employees.

Calling a Candidate’s References

  • Make sure you have a signed authorization from the candidate allowing you to check on past employment details.  Generally, your employment application should contain this language and signature, but you may choose to use a separate form.  Many employers will not verify any information regarding past employees without this signed authorization.
  • Request that the candidate provide you with at least 3 professional references.  Tell the candidate that these references should be able to speak freely about their interaction with the candidate in the workplace.  While references may be supervisors, peers, subordinates, vendors or clients tell the candidate that you need at least one of the professional references to be a past or present direct supervisor.
  • Create a standard reference check form that includes all of the questions you intend to ask the references.  These questions should include, dates of employment, title, salary (if applicable), and additional questions regarding attendance, dependability, teamwork and work performance.  All questions must be work related. Do not ask any questions regarding a candidate’s personal life or questions that will reveal a candidate’s protected class status.
  • Make sure you are complying with state rules regarding criminal background investigations and credit checks, and that you review the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) prior to conducting any of these activities.
  • Remember that quality candidates should be able to easily provide you with three professional references that can speak to their abilities in the workplace.  If a candidate can’t provide such references, or if the references reveal troubling information, you should seriously reconsider the person as a final candidate.

Responding to a Reference Request

  • Make it your company’s policy to only verify dates of employment and position title.  Only verify salary information if you receive a signed authorization from the employee allowing you to do so.  Ensure your Employee Handbook requires all staff to adhere to this policy.  Refer to your attorney prior to responding to a reference request if the employee in question committed workplace violence, or was terminated for any particularly unusual circumstances.