How to Use Reference Check Questions

Automatic Data Processing reports that just under 50 percent of reference checks reveal discrepancies. Employers, hiring managers, and recruiters all need to ask direct reference check questions to verify the information on applications, resumes, and interviews. Good hiring practices include using good reference check questions to investigate a candidate’s background, experience, work habits, and character to uncover information that needs further inquiry before a hiring decision is made.

Why Candidates Lie

Even with a multitude of easily accessible sources of information available to employers, including the Internet and economical background check services, applicants still lie on resumes and applications. The best way to improve employability is by upgrading employment skills or getting additional training or education. There are many alternatives to falsifying information that can usually be easily accessed. But applicants have just as many reasons to lie when trying to get a job, including trying to get more money, to get hired by a particular employer, to hide a criminal record, or to hide a poor work record.

Consequences for Employers

In “Background Checks: How can employers protect themselves from liability when giving references?” the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) discusses employer liability in reference check situations. Employers are liable for providing negative references, retaliating against former employees for revealing illegal activity, giving defamatory references, or disclosing confidential information in a reference that violates privacy laws. Defamation is libel or slander, providing written or spoken false statements to a third party that cause injury. Employers must be very careful not to give any untrue information when answering reference check questions. Refusing to give employee references can also be problematic if it results in a negligent referral lawsuit for not revealing important negative information about a former employee regarding risk, danger, or safety.

The flip side of that is asking and getting the answers to effective reference check questions so you find out any history of violence, criminal record, or mental instability that may put employees, customers, and visitors at risk. An example of this is an Arkansas Federal Court jury award of $7 million in damages to the family of an Arkansas truck driver killed in 2009 by another truck driver with a history of unsafe driving that could have/should have been revealed in a basic background search. A tragedy and a lot of money might have been avoided with thorough reference check questions including asking about the candidate’s driving record and history of auto accidents.

Reference Check Best Practices

It’s not always as easy as picking up the phone and asking a few questions to get the information you need to verify what a candidate says and puts on paper. Many employers refuse to discuss former employees or have policies of only giving minimal information. The best way to get accurate information from former employers is to follow the following reference check questions best practices.

Prepare before you call by making a list of direct reference check questions starting with questions about verification of dates of employment, job title, salary, and job responsibilities.

  • Include these in-depth questions:
  • Why did the employee leave? Would you rehire this candidate?
  • How often did the employee receive salary increases?
  • What position did the employee hold just before leaving, were there any advancements, demotions, or lateral moves or did the employee stay in the same position the whole time with the company?
  • What was the employee’s work performance like?
  • What were the employee’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • What was the employee’s attendance record? Were there any issues with absenteeism and tardiness?
  • How did the candidate get work and interact with co-workers, superiors, and others?
  • Write down who you talked to, the date you called, and the contact information you used.

When references don’t want to provide answers to your reference check questions, be politely persistent, asking things like “It sounds like you weren’t happy with that outcome. Did I understand that correctly? Could you explain with a little more detail?”

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Follow failed reference checks with a more thorough background check.

Top Reference Check Questions

Contact direct supervisors who have worked closely with the applicant when you are checking an applicant’s references. Don’t accept personal references that don’t have any knowledge of the applicant’s work experience. You need to verify the information presented as facts on resumes to assess work ethic and personality traits. When discussing an applicant’s references with a former employer, listen for hesitations, pauses, and tones such as sarcasm, anger, or bitterness. Ask direct questions, starting by asking for verification of the information about the job the candidate held with the reference’s company.

  • What was the employee’s reason for leaving? Is the employee eligible for rehire? Why or why not?\
  • What was the employee’s beginning and ending salary, and how often did the employee  receive salary increases?
  • Did the employee receive advancements, demotions, or lateral moves or stay in the same position?
  • What were the former employee’s duties and responsibilities?
  • How was the employee’s work performance?
  • Did the employee ever go above and beyond what was required?
  • What were the employee’s  strengths, and how would the reference describe the employee as a worker?
  • How would the employee perform in the duties and responsibilities of the position applied for?
  • How was the employee’s attendance record?
  • How did the employee get along with peers, managers, vendors, and customers?
  • Ask the reference if there’s anything else to take into consideration before hiring this candidate.

Knowing how to approach an applicant’s references and what to ask is an important part of an effective recruiting process. The main reason to check an applicant’s references is to verify resume and interview information, protect your organization and employees, and avoid legal problems from poor hiring decisions. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that an estimated 85 percent of large U.S. employers conduct background checks yet applicants continue to lie on resumes and applications. Employers need to know if a candidate will lie before they hire them, and that is what reference check questions reveal.


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