Reference Checks: To Do or Not To Do?

Reference Checks: To Do or Not To Do?

Throughout my 20-year HR career, I have conducted hundreds of reference checks and can think of only two instances where I was privy to information that hurt rather than helped the candidate. Those two instances were years ago, back before companies were worried about being sued. Now it is common for companies to verify factual employment data such as length of employment, title, education confirmation, and restrict qualitative references historically provided by previous supervisors and coworkers.

The majority of reference checks provide a parroting of what the candidate said their strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failures were, which isn’t surprising. As job markets tighten up, competition grows, and candidates become more and savvier. Just like candidates can Google the best answers to interview questions, they can (and do) coach their referees on how to answer. While not every referee will go along with that, most people want to be helpful to someone, and on the skeptical side, what’s the downside to providing a gloried reference? It’s not like the referee is responsible in any way (other than ethically but who has time for that these days?), and maybe they feel guilty for how things ended with the candidate.

What to do if you feel like you HAVE to do a reference check?


  • Confirm who you are talking to because it may not be who you think it is. Back in the old days of the ’80s and ’90s, most offices had a mainline, and when you called in, you were transferred to the person you wanted to speak with (which made in nearly impossible for your cousin to impersonate your boss).
  • Look up the individual on LinkedIn and ask a specific question or two about what you learned – a faker likely doesn’t have the details to answer.

Don’t email the reference check form to a personal email address. As we continue down, the ‘I’m too busy to talk with anyone’ route more, and more references are completed electronically, and as people change jobs more, email addresses change. How do you know John Smith from XYX Company is the same John Smith you need to talk to? One other wrinkle is determining whether the referee completed the form independently or with the guidance of the candidate?


  • Be deliberate about what it is you want to know and why. Get specific. Do you have questions about work style, management process, culture fit? Use the reference as a way to get a different perspective on a situational answer provided in the interview.
  • Many reference checks are generic confirmations of information you can get from resumes – don’t waste the referee’s time with info you can verify through the HR Department.
  • You don’t have to ask the same questions of each referee. Really. Nor does it make sense to do that. A supervisor from two jobs ago may not have current information on the candidate’s improved delegation skills.
  • Consider whom you want to talk to and if it is a well-rounded view of a candidate. I prefer to speak with one supervisor, and then I ask for a coworker at the same level and a direct report.



  • How important is reference checking to your hiring process? Be honest.
  • If you’re emailing a form and asking basic questions, then I don’t think the data should weigh heavily in the decision. Caveat: Unless you learn something unethical, illegal, or worth further investigation.
  • As we continue down our self-improvement pathway and we teach people that past mistakes are rarely held against us. Especially if we say “sorry’. (See passing students who don’t turn in homework, execs who embezzle and walk free, harassers who stay and harassed who are forced out) So why are references given so much weight?
  • The more experience you have and the higher you go up the organization, the less available references become. For example, several of my references have retired, and I have no idea where they are and given their age and mine – they aren’t on social media.

In the two episodes where I did learn harmful information, the company hired both individuals. One person remained with the organization and was a valued team member, and the other made it about a year before being deemed a poor fit. The kicker was the ‘fit’ issue had nothing to do with the harmful information I was given, instead the manager; self admittedly, couldn’t get past the red flag.

Check back next week for what to do instead of a reference check.


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