If you are an employer looking to hire the best talent for your organization, you know how important it is to conduct reference checks on your candidates. Reference checks are a vital part of the hiring process that can help you validate the information provided by the candidates, predict their job performance, and thoroughly evaluate their suitability for the role. In this article, we will provide you with some effective reference check strategies that can enhance the reliability of your hiring decisions and help you avoid costly hiring mistakes.

What are reference checks, and why are they important?

Reference checks verify the information that candidates provide in their resumes, such as their job titles, responsibilities, achievements, and skills. They also allow you to gain insights into a candidate’s past performance, work ethic, attitude, and behavior from people who have worked with them before, such as former managers, colleagues, or clients.

What is the importance of reference checks? 

  • They can help confirm the accuracy of the information provided by the candidates and spot any potential discrepancies or red flags.
  • Reference checks help you understand how a candidate performed in their previous roles and what kind of results they delivered.
  • They can help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate and how they can contribute to your organization’s goals and culture.
  • You can also use reference checks to compare different candidates and make informed hiring decisions based on objective data.

Importance of Reference Checks

Reference checks serve two main purposes: validating candidate information and predicting job performance.

A. Validating Candidate Information

It helps employers verify the accuracy of the information that candidates provide in their resumes, such as their job titles, responsibilities, and achievements. This is important because some candidates may exaggerate or falsify their credentials to make themselves more attractive to potential employers. By contacting the references that candidates provide, you can confirm the facts and spot any potential discrepancies.

B. Predicting Job Performance

Reference checks also help employers understand how candidates performed in their previous roles and how they might perform in the future. By asking the references about a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, you can identify the areas where a candidate excels and where they need improvement. 

It can also help employers assess how well a candidate would fit within the organization’s culture, values, and expectations. When you ask the references about a candidate’s work style, communication skills, and interpersonal relationships, you can determine if a candidate would be compatible with the team and the organization.

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Legal and Ethical Considerations

Reference checks are an essential part of the hiring process, as they allow employers to verify the information provided by candidates and gain insights into their performance, skills, and work style. However, conducting reference checks can also pose some legal and ethical challenges, such as complying with privacy laws, respecting confidentiality, and minimizing bias. In this blog post, we will provide some tips on how to conduct effective reference checks that are fair, legal, and informative.

Compliance with Privacy Laws

Before conducting reference checks, you as an employer should be aware of the relevant privacy and data protection regulations that apply to your jurisdiction. These regulations may vary depending on the country, state, or industry, but they generally require you to obtain the candidate’s consent before contacting their referees and to use the information obtained only for hiring. 

You should also ensure that you follow a fair and legal reference check process that does not discriminate against candidates based on their protected characteristics, such as race, gender, age, disability, or religion.

Confidentiality in Reference Checks

Another important aspect of conducting reference checks is confidentiality. You should encourage open communication with referees by assuring them that their responses will be treated confidentially and will not be shared with the candidate or other parties without their permission. 

As an employer, you should also respect the sensitive information that referees may provide, such as personal or professional issues that may have affected the candidate’s performance. By maintaining confidentiality, employers can build trust between themselves and the referees, and obtain more honest and accurate feedback.

Preparing for Reference Checks

A. Establishing a Reference Check Policy

Before contacting referees, you should establish a reference check policy that outlines the guidelines and best practices for the reference check process. This policy should include the following elements:

  • Number and type of references required for each position
  • The criteria for selecting appropriate referees
  • Format and duration of the reference check
  • Questions to be asked during the reference check
  • The method of recording and evaluating the responses

As an employer, you should also train your hiring managers on how to follow the policy and conduct effective reference checks. When you have a clear and consistent policy, you can ensure that you will only obtain relevant and reliable information from referees and that your candidates will be fairly and objectively compared.

B. Obtaining Candidate Consent

Another key step in preparing for reference checks is obtaining candidate consent. Employers should communicate the reference check process to candidates clearly and transparently, and explain why it is important for the hiring decision. It is also important for you as an employer to obtain written consent from candidates before contacting their referees. 

You should also explain how candidates’ personal information will be used and protected. If candidates have any concerns or questions about the reference check process, you should address them promptly and respectfully.


Conducting Effective Reference Checks

To conduct reference checks that can provide you with valuable insights, you need to follow three steps: identify appropriate referees, ask the right questions, and use a structured approach.

A. Identifying Appropriate Referees

The first step is to choose referees who can give you relevant and reliable information about the candidates. Ideally, you should ask for referees who have worked closely with the candidates in a similar role or context, such as former supervisors, colleagues, or direct reports. You should also verify the authenticity of the referees by checking their contact details and relationship with the candidates.

B. Asking the Right Questions

The second step is to develop a standardized set of questions that can help you evaluate the candidates’ skills, achievements, and work behaviors. You should avoid asking generic or yes/no questions and instead focus on specific examples and situations that demonstrate the candidates’ performance and potential. 

You should also encourage the referees to provide detailed and honest feedback and probe further if they give vague or inconsistent answers.

C. Using a Structured Approach

The third step is to follow a consistent format for all reference checks and compare the responses across different candidates. This can help you reduce bias and ensure fairness in the evaluation process. 

You should also document the results of each reference check, and use them as one of the criteria for making your hiring decision.

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Overcoming Challenges in Reference Checks

As important as reference checks are in the hiring process, they can also pose some challenges, such as dealing with unresponsive referees or navigating legal restrictions. Here are some strategies for overcoming these challenges and conducting effective reference checks.

A. Dealing with Unresponsive Referees

One of the most common challenges in reference checks is getting in touch with the referees and obtaining feedback from them. Sometimes, referees may not respond to your calls or emails, or they may provide vague or incomplete answers. This can be frustrating and time-consuming, and it can also affect your ability to make an informed hiring decision.

There are several possible reasons why referees may be unresponsive, such as:

  • They are busy or have conflicting priorities.
  • Contacted referees may not be comfortable giving feedback or have a negative opinion of the candidate.
  • They have a personal or professional relationship with the candidate that may bias their feedback.
  • Referees may be unaware of the legal implications of giving feedback or fear legal repercussions.

To deal with unresponsive referees, you can try the following strategies:

  • Reach out to them multiple times and through different channels (phone, email, text, etc.)
  • Schedule a specific time for the call and send a reminder before the call.
  • Explain the purpose and scope of the reference check and how it will benefit the candidate.
  • Ask open-ended and behavioral questions that elicit specific examples and evidence.
  • Express appreciation and gratitude for their time and feedback.
  • Follow up with a thank-you note and a summary of the feedback.

If you still cannot get in touch with the referees or obtain meaningful feedback from them, you can consider alternative sources of information, such as:

  • Other references provided by the candidate or suggested by other referees.
  • Online sources such as LinkedIn, social media, blogs, portfolios, etc.
  • Previous employers or coworkers who are not listed as references but can be contacted with the candidate’s permission.
  • Assessments or tests that measure the candidate’s skills or personality.

B. Navigating Legal Restrictions

Another challenge in reference checks is understanding and complying with the legal limitations on the information that referees can provide. Depending on the jurisdiction, laws or regulations may restrict what questions you can ask and what answers you can receive during a reference check. For example, you may not be able to ask about:

  • The candidate’s age, race, gender, religion, marital status, disability, etc.
  • Previous salary and benefits received by the candidate or reasons for leaving previous jobs.
  • The candidate’s performance appraisals, disciplinary actions, or complaints.
  • Personal or professional relationships of the candidate with referees or other coworkers.

To navigate legal restrictions, you should:

  • Research the relevant laws and regulations in your jurisdiction and consult with your legal counsel if needed.
  • Prepare a list of questions that are job-related and non-discriminatory
  • Ask for consent from the candidate and the referees before conducting the reference check
  • Document the questions asked, and the answers received during the reference check
  • Respect the confidentiality and privacy of the candidate and the referees

By following these guidelines, you can avoid potential legal issues and ensure that your reference checks are fair and ethical.

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Post-Reference Check Actions

A. Analyzing Feedback

An important part of reference checks is to analyze the feedback gathered from the reference check. Evaluate the information critically and objectively without letting your biases or impressions influence your judgment. 

Look for patterns and trends in the feedback from multiple referees and compare them with the information provided by the candidate in their resume, cover letter, or interview. Also, assess the candidate’s overall suitability for the position based on their qualifications, skills, fit, and potential.

B. Providing Feedback to Candidates

The final step in reference checks is to provide feedback to the candidates. Communicate the results of the reference check to the candidates in a timely and professional manner. 

Offer constructive feedback when necessary. Highlight the positive aspects and the areas for improvement of the candidate. Maintain transparency in the decision-making process, explaining the criteria and rationale behind your evaluation.

Also, don’t forget to thank the candidates for their participation and interest in the position.


In conclusion, reference checks are a valuable tool for employers to make informed hiring decisions. It allows employers to verify the information candidates provide and gain insights into their performance, skills, and personality. It also requires following ethical and legal practices, obtaining relevant and reliable feedback, and analyzing the information critically. 

As an employer, you should continuously refine your reference check processes to ensure their effectiveness and efficiency. By doing so, you can increase your chances of hiring successful candidates who will contribute to your organizational goals.


  • Olayemi Jemimah Aransiola
  • on 9 min read


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